When the omicron variant crashed into the holiday season, it created a lot of confusion and frustration as Americans scrambled for COVID tests and reliable information. For the less than scrupulous, it also created an opportunity.
Take Philadelphia, where a number of dubious coronavirus testing sites have cropped up, leading the public health department to warn residents on Monday to avoid unofficial tents offering such services. “Last week, the Health Department was notified of small pop-up tents that were offering free COVID-19 testing operating in Center City. The staff who worked at these sites claimed they were funded by FEMA,” the department said in a statement. “Over the weekend, it was confirmed that these sites were not funded by FEMA.” Philadelphia, which has its own list of approved testers, has faced a record-breaking COVID-19 surge, with an average of 2,654 new cases per day over the last two weeks. Local hospitals have been near capacity. Then came the outbreak of blue tents.
Apart from inaccurately claiming to receive funding from Federal Emergency Management Agency, these pop-up sites have reportedly been asking customers for personal information like Social Security numbers, which is not typically required for COVID-19 testing. (There do not appear to be any reported cases of this personal information being abused as of yet.) Customers have further claimed that in certain cases the sites did not even provide results of their PCR tests within the quoted turnaround time, forcing them to seek out at-home kits.
The mystery was quickly solved, if only partially. At least some of the pop-up tents appear to be linked to Lab Elite, a coronavirus testing and toxicology company based out of Chicago. It was founded in December 2020 to meet the rising demand for testing caused by the pandemic and has been accredited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The company also operates testing sites in Chicago and Miami and collected about 4,000 samples in Philadelphia in December. Lab Elite apologized for the confusion and said it was surprised to learn that the testing sites were collecting Social Security numbers and claiming to have FEMA’s backing, though the company blamed these snafus on a subcontractor called LP Global that it had hired to collect samples in the area. Though it claimed the tests were valid and that the personal information was secure despite the misrepresentations, the company has since shut down its Philadelphia sites after receiving questions from the city. “These guys were kind of running a wild s—show, so they were ordered to shut them down,” Lab Elite owner Nikola Nozinic told the Philadelphia Inquirer of LP Global, a New Jersey marketing firm with scant internet presence. Lab Elite experienced another operational snag in late December, when a shipment containing hundreds of COVID-19 test samples arrived at a family’s home in Oahu, instead of its intended destination at the company’s lab in Chicago. Lab Elite blamed that failure on FedEx, and the shipping company said it was investigating the matter. (Lab Elite did not respond to a request for comment on its problems in Philadelphia.)
This isn’t the only case of troubled or disreputable parties offering tests. The Federal Trade Commission has been warning about fake testing sites since 2020, reporting that the scammers running such operations often do not adhere to sanitation protocols and ask customers for information like credit card and Social Security numbers. In late 2020, the FBI raided the Infinity Diagnostic Laboratory in Ventnor, New Jersey, which allegedly charged $75 for tests that were not suitable for detecting active infections. Last week, police in Oakland, California, warned that scammers wearing lab coats were approaching people waiting in long lines at testing centers and offering them a quicker procedure. After administering a fake test, the scammers would then move to collect personal information that could be abused later on. And on Monday, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said during a pandemic briefing that he had asked the state attorney general’s office to investigate illegitimate pop-up sites that are charging illegal fees and violating health protocols. “All they’re doing is taking the swabs, putting it in the liquid, then they aren’t taking responsibility for how long it takes to get that test back from a lab that they may not have a strong relationship with,” the governor said. “That is an enormous problem. Some of them are not even returning results at all.”
Part of the reason why these scams have been able to flourish seems to be that federal and local governments have not set up enough sites nor provided enough tests to meet the need during the omicron wave in certain areas, leaving people desperate enough to try sketchy alternatives. The lower demand for tests over the summer combined with the sudden arrival of the omicron variant during the winter holidays caught the Biden administration and many cities off guard, and plans to ramp up distribution of at-home kits did not come to fruition in time to avoid disruptions in winter travel. The Philadelphia Health Department further acknowledged in its statement on pop-up tents that people may have issues finding tests due to “overwhelming” demand, and advised those who are experiencing symptoms to act as if they are positive even if they haven’t been able to get access to testing. If the choice you’re facing is staying home or jeopardizing your Social Security number, it shouldn’t be much of a choice.