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Scammers see opportunity in demand for virus testing in US, officials say

A long line for COVID-19 testing outside a county health department facility in Salt Lake City, Jan. 12, 2022.KIM RAFF/NYT

Federal and state officials warned last week of coronavirus testing scams that have taken advantage of the United States’ strained testing infrastructure and have left Americans with invalid test results, wrongful medical bills and overpriced at-home tests.

Fraud related to the virus has persisted since the onset of the pandemic, but the rapid spread of the omicron variant has created opportunities for scammers preying on the high demand for tests.

On Friday, the Better Business Bureau issued an alert about phony websites and pop-up testing sites that collect people’s personal information, swab them for a test and then never provide results.

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Attorneys general in Oregon, New Mexico and Illinois advised residents last week to use only authorized virus testing centers — which are typically listed on city, state and county government websites or recommended by a primary care doctor — because of scams at pop-up testing sites and online.

“The huge demand for COVID-19 testing of all kinds — at-home tests, rapid antigen tests, PCR tests — brings bad actors and some businesses trying to make a quick buck out from the shadows,” said Ellen Rosenblum, the Oregon attorney general, in a statement Wednesday.

Rosenblum said residents should be cautious about pop-up testing sites that ask for personal information, such as a Social Security number, which is not necessary for testing or billing. She said the state was also seeing price gouging for at-home tests sold online.

These concerns were reflected by officials in other states.

Hector Balderas, the New Mexico attorney general, said his office had received reports of testing sites that were providing negative results without actually testing people. “New Mexicans must remain cautious during these very difficult times,” Balderas said in a statement Friday.

In Michigan, there has been an increase in calls and complaints about fake at-home tests sold online, according to the attorney general’s office. In New York, the attorney general’s office is investigating reports that people were wrongfully billed for tests in New York City.

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Earlier this month, the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services issued a warning about scammers using text messages, telemarketing calls, social media and door-to-door visits to commit COVID-related fraud.

The United States has struggled to consistently and efficiently test people during different waves of the pandemic.

In an effort to lessen this pressure in the current surge, President Joe Biden promised to deliver free tests to Americans’ homes and ordered private insurers to cover the costs of tests bought in stores or online. The Biden administration said Friday that Americans would have to wait nearly two weeks after placing orders to receive the at-home rapid tests.