How to protect yourself against a DNA test scam: Internet Scambusters #976
Genetic testing, through analysis of an individual's DNA, has led to significant breakthroughs in many fields of human activity.
But it's still in its infancy. It can be error prone, misleading, and sometimes merely a hook to steal money and information from victims.
In this week's issue, we'll explain the two biggest types of DNA test scams and give you the information on how to avoid the trap.
Let's get started…
This Fraudulent DNA Test Could Cost You $10,000
Scammers are using fear and ignorance to drive victims into signing up for DNA tests they don't need. They're handing over money and confidential information, and in some cases, suffering distress and even endangering health.
An estimated 30 million Americans have taken the tests, mostly in an effort to trace their ancestry and ethnicity. The accuracy of some of the resulting analyses, although perfectly legitimate, has been called into question.
But the real concern focuses on two potential scams:
- Tests of people's genetic makeup that purport to show how much at risk they are for developing certain diseases and disorders, as well as their personality type or physical and mental suitability for certain activities.
- Tricking people into either taking tests or buying home kits as part of a Medicare fraud scheme, which also threatens an identity theft sting.
DNA and You
You may have seen ads online that claim a gene analysis can predict the likelihood of you developing serious health conditions. In reality, even the most detailed tests can only pinpoint if an individual's DNA contains a gene that's common to other sufferers.
Maybe that's enough for some people but experts worry that without proper medical guidance, people could make personal decisions that are both unnecessary and potentially dangerous.
Back in 2019, the US Department of Justice took enforcement action against 35 alleged scammers, including nine doctors, said to have been responsible for over $2.1 billion losses involving fraudulent genetic cancer testing.
At the same time, a new breed of companies has popped up that claim to be able to tell you about your personality traits or if you'd make, say, a good football player, a successful lawyer, or even a good spouse. A genetic analysis can't do this because there are too many other non-genetic factors that shape a person's life outcomes.
One of the companies that's been criticized for this claims that its activities are intended just to provide entertainment! Others are less upfront, making all sorts of outrageous claims about their analyses including sexual preferences, the best wine, and the best diet for the individual.
The tech site Futurism describes these firms as shady DNA testing startups "operating in the regulatory Wild West of commercial genomics."
They're promising information about DNA with a granularity that even scientists can't deliver, Futurism says, quoting geneticist Deanna Church as saying the tests are "all equally useless."
DNA and Insurers
Some of the firms involved in the above activities sell their services online via telesales and messages, at booths at public events, or even by going door to door.
The same tactics are being used by scammers who tell their targets they're required to take a test by their health insurance company, most notably Medicare and Medicaid recipients. They sell supposed kits for this or simply take a cheek swab.
In other cases, after charging $100 or more, they arrange to meet their victim in a public location and never turn up.
In one recent case in Massachusetts, people were told their DNA test was needed by police. They paid a fee and were instructed to turn up outside the local jail. Of course, there was no one there when they arrived.
In other instances, crooks go door-to-door in poorer neighborhoods offering a cash payment, usually $20, to people who agree to take the supposed test. They take a cheek swab, but they're really just after that valuable personal information, including their Social Security number (SSN) and Medicare number.
Then they may use this information to file fraudulent reimbursement claims. If the claim is rejected, they tell the individuals they must pay out of their own pocket. According to one report, this cost has been known to exceed $10,000 according to the US Administration for Community Living (ACL).
The US Department of Health and Human Service (HHS) has issued an alert about Medicare DNA test fraud.
"Beneficiaries who agree to genetic testing or verify personal or Medicare information may receive a cheek swab, an in-person screening or a testing kit in the mail, even if it is not ordered by a physician or medically necessary," HHS warned.
"If Medicare denies the claim, the beneficiary could be responsible for the entire cost of the test, which could be thousands of dollars."
How to Avoid a DNA Test Scam
- Don't take a DNA test without consulting your own health professional.
- If you're told a test is required by your insurer, check with them.
- Understand that a DNA test can't tell you anything about your personality.
- Don't give your Medicare number to anyone other than your doctor's office.
- If you receive a test kit you didn't order, don't use it. Refuse delivery if you can.
- Don't accept free or paid-for testing at public events, your front door, or even, as has been reported, in a parking lot!
If you do suspect Medicare fraud, contact the HHS Inspector General's office.
While there's no doubt that DNA testing and genetic analysis have been a boon for law enforcement and family history enthusiasts, it also has many limitations. Just because tests are now cheap, at around $59, doesn't make them any more worthwhile. Start by taking any claims about what analysis can tell you with extreme caution -- aka a pinch of salt.
Alert of the Week
Do you have an Amazon Kindle e-reader? Maybe you thought they couldn't be hacked, but a team of experts recently discovered a vulnerability that would allow hackers to access the devices.
Amazon quickly patched the weakness, but it does highlight the simple fact that any device that connects to the Internet is potentially vulnerable to tech-savvy troublemakers.
Time to close today, but we'll be back next week with another issue. See you then!