Defend yourself (and your patients) from these COVID scams

By Joe Hannan | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published June 14, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Throughout the pandemic, fraudsters have creatively targeted patients and clinicians.

  • With some education and a few best practices, patients and providers can better defend themselves from scammers.

  • Clinicians can familiarize themselves with some recent high-profile scams, as well as the tactics fraudsters use to target providers and patients.

Sickness and scams: They’re unfortunate, inseparable aspects of medical history. When confronting mysterious disease on a global scale, the fearful want cures while the unscrupulous see dollar signs.

During the Russian Flu of 1889 (which may have killed a million people), newspaper ads for so-called cures included an electric battery, bronchial inhalers, and castor oil.[]

One dubious device involved a rubber ball filled with carbolic acid; when the ball was squeezed, it released carbolic acid “smoke” through an attached tube, inserted in the nose, through which the patient inhaled.

History repeated itself in 1918 with the arrival of the Spanish Flu, which may have infected close to a third of the global population, killing anywhere between 60 and 500 million people. Scams included “Formamint lozenges,” which people were to suck in germy places, or “Laxative Bromo Quinine” for prophylaxis.

Fortunately, the quacks of yesteryear didn’t have the internet to peddle their wares, which ranged from dubious to deadly. But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, modern consumers weren’t so fortunate.

‘Miracle cure’

It’s bad enough that anyone would attempt to take advantage of frightened, desperate people. It’s worse when the person behind a medical scam wears a white coat.

One of the more high-profile scams of the pandemic was orchestrated by Jennings Ryan Staley, MD, who ran Skinny Beach Med Spas in the San Diego area.

In May 2022, Staley was sentenced to 30 days in prison and a year of home confinement after he pleaded guilty to attempting to smuggle hydroxychloroquine into the US. The drug, intended as  a component of his DIY COVID treatment kits, was marketed as a “miracle cure.”

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Staley attempted to smuggle hydroxychloroquine, intentionally mislabeled as “yam extract,” via a Chinese supplier into the US.[] He planned to sell powderized hydroxychloroquine in capsules as part of COVID treatment kits in March and April 2020. He solicited financial backers for this scheme, telling one he could “triple your money in 90 days.”

Eventually, Staley slipped up and sold $4,000 worth of treatment kits to an undercover FBI agent. He even offered to throw in some generic Viagra and Xanax.

“The defendant used a global pandemic to prey on the public’s fear by offering a 'cure' for COVID-19, and then lied to FBI agents about it,” said FBI special agent in charge Stacey Moy.

Staley may have been among the first COVID scammers, but he wouldn’t be the last.

Fake tests

In April 2022, the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office announced a $22.5 million settlement with the COVID-testing company Sameday Technologies and its CEO Felix Huettenbach.[]

The settlement laid to rest claims that the company and its CEO had faked and forged COVID test results, as well as generated false advertising and perpetrated insurance fraud.

Sameday had been accused of falsely advertising that it could deliver COVID test results within 24 hours. When the company couldn’t, it allegedly generated fake results for at least 500 customers. In some instances, the company allegedly sent customers their results before their test had been analyzed or delivered to the lab.

Sameday and Huettenbach were also accused of insurance fraud, billing insurance companies an additional $450 fee for medically unnecessary consultations.

Sameday and its CEO are now subject to an injunction that bars them from the practices described in the city attorney’s statement. Huettenbach is also prohibited from accessing the test results or health records of Sameday customers.

Protecting patients

Beneath these headline-grabbing COVID scams are others that are just as nefarious.[] HCPs are well-positioned to educate patients and family members on predatory practices such as the following:

Identity theft

While many people were excited to announce their vaccination status by sharing a photo of their card on social media, they also unwittingly opened themselves to identity theft. These cards contain names, birthdates, and other useful personal information. Advise patients to not share such pictures.

Fake testing, vaccines, and treatment

Some scammers are offering fake tests, vaccines, and treatments to steal information from Medicare recipients. Medicare patients can find information on where to locate legitimate options here.

Charity scams

Fraudsters prey on people’s generosity by creating fake charities. Patients can find legitimate charities through services like GuideStar.

Government funds

Beware of scammers bearing gifts. Some are posing as the IRS or other government agencies, asking for personal information so they can send stimulus funds.

Fake grandkids and military members

Some con artists pose as grandchildren or members of the military who are sick with COVID. They request wire transfers to offset the cost of medical or travel expenses. Patients should contact their children, grandchildren, or related military service members directly before sending any money.

Funeral assistance scams

FEMA has a legitimate COVID-19 funeral assistance program, which some criminals are exploiting. These scammers will contact family members of the deceased and attempt to steal Social Security numbers and other identifying information.

Protecting patients

Throughout the pandemic, doctors have also been in the crosshairs of con artists. In April 2020, the AMA warned about phishing attacks targeting doctors.[]

In a phishing attack, a cybercriminal will send an email that appears to be from a legitimate source, like the CDC, or from an internal source, like your employer’s HR or healthcare department. Clicking the link could install malware, or take you to another screen, asking for sensitive information like your username or password.

The AMA advises that if you have any doubts about the legitimacy of an email, don’t click anything or provide any information.

Instead, go to its source and verify whether the message is real. Contact your IT department if you have additional questions or concerns.

Cyber protection

The rise of telehealth also raised cybersecurity concerns.

Improperly secured home devices and public wifi networks are all exploitable by cybercriminals. The AMA recommends:

  • Keeping devices and software up to date

  • Using a virtual private network, or your employer’s properly secured network, when possible

  • Using unique, strong passwords

  • Password-protecting video conferences

What this means for you

COVID-19 gave rise to scams targeting desperate patients, along with well-intended providers. Some clinicians and healthcare industry insiders even orchestrated fraud. Clinicians are well-positioned to alert patients to COVID frauds  and can protect their own practice by staying up-to-date on the latest exploits by scammers and cybercriminals.

Related: Insidious scams that physicians should watch out for
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