Sandra Jaramillo needed a negative Covid-19 test to get back to work, but was empty when a test was found on the same day due to massive demand.
Jaramillo had a headache and a fever, and with limited options, she decided to stop at a pop-up test site set up in a church parking lot near her home in San Antonio.
Under a small tent, she was asked to give her driver’s license number, date of birth and email address before she was handed a swab to take the test on herself.
Jaramillo said that was more than a week ago, and she’s now panicked that her personal information might have been hacked.
Nobody answers the number listed on the info sheet she was given, and the voice mailbox is full.
“At this point, I feel like a conman,” Jaramillo, 32, said. “It was horrible. It seemed there was no choice and nowhere to turn to [for a test]. “
Pop-up test sites have popped up on street corners, in parking lots and in shopping places across the country, but health and legal experts say many of these sites are unregulated and could be rife with nefarious activities such as identity theft.
In the past few weeks, lawmakers and attorneys general in several states including Illinois, Maryland, California, Texas and Pennsylvania have said they will investigate and introduce regulatory legislation that oversees these operations.
Several illegal, unapproved, and unhealthy websites have been warned by state officials across the country.
Outside St. Louis, a Covid testing site was set up in a mall parking lot and people were required to provide Social Security numbers and a passport ID when registering for tests. It was shut down by the police, who later urged anyone visiting the site to monitor their credit reports for any fraudulent activity.
At least two locations have been identified in Baltimore, where state Attorney General Brian Frosh has warned residents to be aware of “illegal and unauthorized pop-up COVID-19 testing sites” that have been collecting personal information that could be used for identity theft.
Unsanitary locations have been reported in Chicago where workers are not wearing masks or gloves. The conditions were described as “hell,” the nonprofit news organization Block Club Chicago reported. People who visited the site said they never got their results or they came in weeks after the visit.
Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker described the test sites as “night-fly” sites that were a “huge problem,” before vowing to crack down on them.
“With the growing demand for Covid tests, people can expect fake tests online and possibly more of the fake test sites we’ve seen previously in the pandemic,” Colin Tressler, a consumer education specialist with the Federal Trade Commission’s Office of Consumer Protection, said. “Scammers believe in supply and demand too, so when there is demand for tests, scammers will fake supply.”
Since the pandemic began, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has received more than 650,000 reports of scams, identity theft and other Covid-related scams, which have cost Americans more than $636 million.
Marianne Liu, a professor of nursing at Purdue University’s Center for Aging and Life Cycle, said the pandemic spawned all kinds of different frauds that were based on people’s needs at the time.
“At first, people would knock on doors and say, ‘We have vaccines,'” Liu said.
Not all pop-up clinics work maliciously, Liu said, but some likely do, which is why Liu advised caution when considering going to any of these sites. Some charge for the tests, while in most cases you do not have to pay for them.
For some, they play on the convenience of “going around a corner,” but as Covid cases continue to rise, “they’re working on the fact that people are desperate,” according to Liu.
These convenient popups come as several states have announced limited testing capacity due to severe shortages, including Indiana, which has limited rapid antigen testing for people 18 and younger and symptomatic individuals aged 50 And above. The state typically uses about 50,000 rapid tests per week, but is now guaranteed to receive only 11,000 tests per week.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that in Philadelphia, more than 4,000 people have taken Covid tests in tents across crowded parts of the city that were run by an organization that falsely identified itself as a partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Some sites may have taken Social Security numbers.
“The nasal swabs were collected by a New Jersey-based marketing agency and then shipped to a testing lab in Chicago, owned by a plumber and bar owner,” the outlet stated.
Melissa Bailey, 53, was one of thousands who visited one such location in Philadelphia’s downtown neighborhood.
“I’ve seen the city harass people for selling water on the street, so it didn’t even occur to me that these people would be allowed to pitch a tent and not get the city’s attention in such a busy part of the city,” said Bailey, whose site workers checked his driver’s license.
Bailey said she received her results in the promised time, but was concerned that her personal information might be misused.
As events unfold in real time, so does oversight, meaning that these pop-up testing sites are largely unregulated, said Alison K. Hoffman, professor of health care law and policy at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law.
She said there are federal and state regulations that cover clinical labs, but “the tricky thing is that the tents you see may or may not be affiliated with a clinical lab.”
Pop-ups are also not under the jurisdiction of health departments in many states because they are often not classified as health clinics.
“The regulators have to catch up, and as the wave with Omicron in the past weeks has been so intense that it has outstripped demand, very quickly regulators are trying to catch up on what’s happening in such a fast way that I think it’s leaving the regulator scrambling a bit,” she said.
But while the law is catching up, Hoffman said it’s important to be careful when visiting a pop-up site.
“If they ask for more information than they should, like Social Security numbers, don’t give them that,” she said. “If they’re asking for payment, don’t pay them because you shouldn’t be paying out of your pocket at all for these tests at the moment. So I think that while right, people are really keen to get tested now, they should still be wise about who they provide the information with. “.