How to Spot Fake COVID Test Kits
Fake COVID-19 products have been a problem practically ever since the pandemic began. Counterfeit masks continue to be an issue, and now — due largely in part to the increased demand for and limited supply of at-home COVID tests — there's a new set of faux items circulating the market: fake COVID-19 test kits. So much so, in fact, that just last week, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released a warning about these "unauthorized" and fraudulent finds that are "popping up online as opportunistic scammers take advantage of the spike in demand."
The FTC's January 4 alert comes just two months after the Food and Drug Administration originally flagged the growing number of fake COVID-19 tests and "cures" online. "You will risk unknowingly spreading COVID-19 or not getting treated appropriately if you use an unauthorized test," said the agency in a consumer update in November. This is still possible and arguably even more likely given the growing number of shady companies cranking out illegitimate tests that claim to be authorized for use by the FDA today.
So, if you don't know what to look for, you can end up making important decisions based on the results of an unreliable test. And that can be dangerous, according to experts. "If a test has an erroneous result, it could influence behavior, causing people to take an unjustified risk," says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
John Sellick, D.O., an infectious disease expert and professor of medicine at the University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Science, agrees. "You may get a false negative and say, 'I'm good to go,'" he says. "Then you've got people roaming around, going to work, and thinking they're fine, while they're spreading COVID-19 to others." (See also: What You Need to Know About False Positive COVID-19 Test Results)
Clearly, that's not something most people would do on purpose. So, how can you know if you just ordered a fake COVID test kit? Here's exactly how to spot a fraudulent test so you can shop with confidence and stay safe.
What Constitutes a Fake COVID Test Kit?
A fake COVID test kit is one that hasn't been authorized for use by the FDA. (FWIW, a test is granted an emergency use authorization from the FDA after a company applies for it by using an FDA template that's specifically designed to cover all of the data the FDA needs to know to make a decision. Then, FDA officials review data from the company to determine whether or not the test is safe and meets a public need. Then, the EUA is either granted or not.)
It's important to point out that authorization is different from approval. The approval process takes much longer, which is why many COVID-19 tests and medications have been granted authorization, but not approval just yet. Some fake COVID tests will claim that they've been granted EUA from the FDA when they actually haven't. The FDA warns that tests and other products that "haven't been evaluated by the agency for safety and effectiveness" can "be dangerous to you and your family."
Fake COVID-19 test kits are usually sold online — Amazon, for instance, is a hotbed for them — and typically mimic authorized at-home COVID antigen tests in the way that they're designed to be used. Meaning, a fake test will likely instruct you to perform a nasal swab and stick it in some sort of test kit or solution to get your results. A fake COVID test kit will claim to tell you if you have the virus or not, even though it hasn't been authorized by government officials to do just that. Those that have been authorized by the FDA make similar claims — they're just actually legit.
Over the past almost two years, there have been several kinds of fake COVID test kits. "At first, it was fake antibody tests," says Dr. Sellick. These would claim to determine whether you had developed antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes the novel coronavirus), which would suggest some level of immunity to the virus. Now, though, there are a lot of fake at-home rapid antigen tests, which purportedly tell you whether or not you have COVID-19, notes Dr. Sellick. (Related: Everything You Need to Know About Coronavirus Testing)
How to Spot a Fake COVID Test Kit
Unfortunately, there's no one universal sign that a COVID-19 test is fake, but there are a few fairly easy ways to figure out if the kit you're eyeing is a fraud.
Consult the list. To date, the FDA has granted EUA to 43 antigen diagnostic tests for SARS-CoV-2 — all of which are compiled into an easily accessible list online. What's more, the list is updated every time another test is granted EUA, making it the best, most accurate place to look if you're wondering whether that test kit on Amazon or elsewhere is legit. And if it's not on the list? Then it's not worth buying.
Do some research. "You can [also] search online for the name of the test, along with 'FDA authorization' and results should come up from the FDA that show the EUA, along with what the product looks like," he says. If you can't find it, or if the packaging on the test you're considering buying is different from that on the FDA website, best to pass, says Dr. Sellick. (See also: FDA-Authorized At-Home COVID-19 Tests That'll Save You from Waiting In Line)
Pay attention to phrasing. Steer clear of any test that claims it's "FDA approved," as, again, no test has been fully approved by the FDA yet. Instead, it should say "FDA authorized" or something similar. "Legitimate tests will have some indication on the packaging that they have an FDA emergency use authorization," says Dr. Adalja. Not only that but "they will also be listed on the FDA's website," he adds. So, ideally, you'll want to read the label and find the test on the list.
Consider the retailer and seller. In general, the tests you find at major drugstores and supermarket chains — online and in-person — should be authorized by the FDA, says Dr. Sellick. Still, it doesn't hurt to double-check the test information online, just to be sure, he adds. Still, it's a good idea to be wary of blindly buying tests on Amazon, given that the site has had a few issues with counterfeit COVID products, says Dr. Sellick. Heed the FTC's advice and check out a seller before you buy by "search[ing] online for the website, company, or seller's name plus words like 'scam,' 'complaint,' or 'review.'"
Compare online reviews. Another way to figure out whether or not a COVID-19 test kit is fake, according to the FTC? By reading user reviews on various retail or shopping sites — just be sure to think about the source of the review and ask yourself questions such as "where is this review coming from?" and "is it from an expert organization or individual customers?" And being that you can't trust everything you read on the internet, it's also a good idea to refer to the FDA's official list of COVID-19 tests before buying a product online simply based on a few reviews.
Double-check. Recently, the FDA also released a list of fake COVID test kids and other products. So, you can refer to this resource to confirm that any product you recently bought or are considering buying is not on that list.
It's important to remember that no test is perfect — even those that are authorized by the FDA. If you test negative for COVID-19 and are still having symptoms of the virus, Dr. Sellick recommends testing again in 24 hours. If you're still unsure about the results, call your doctor about any next steps, he recommends. You may need a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which is considered the gold standard of COVID-19 testing, to know whether or not you're infected with the virus for sure. (Related: Can Someone Please Explain What's Up with the CDC's New Isolation Guidelines?)
What About Fake COVID Testing Sites?
As COVID cases continued to soar in the U.S. (thanks in part to the highly-transmissible Omicron variant), so have fake COVID-related products. The latest scam to make headlines? Fake COVID testing sites.
In the past few weeks, there have been reports from officials across the country of fake pop-up COVID testing sites. In St. Louis, Missouri, for example, a COVID testing site set up in a mall parking lot took peoples' Social Security numbers and passport ID numbers before it was shut down by police. Two fraudulent sites were also detected in Baltimore, prompting Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh to urge people to be wary of where they get tested. "Consumers in need of a COVID-19 test should have it performed at an approved testing site," he said in a statement. "Providing personal information, such as Social Security numbers, to individuals hosting one of these pop-up sites not only puts your health at risk but increases your chances of becoming a victim of identity theft."
Many of the fake COVID testing sites that have been reported are pop-up clinics (think: those tents cropping up on street corners, parking lots, and shopping properties). And while not all of these convenient, just-around-the-corner locations are fraudulent, health and legal experts say many of them are unregulated and could be full of nefarious activities, according to NBC News.
As such, you might want to think twice about getting tested at one of these sites, and if you do, don't provide any personal identification information such as Social Security numbers. These fake COVID testing sites might also b charging you a fee — don't pay, as there's no reason you should be paying out of pocket for these tests right now (no matter your insurance status).
Your local health department should have a list of approved COVID testing sites in your area. You can also head to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website to find a nearby health center, as COVID-19 tests are available at these locations nationwide.