MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
President Trump says his administration is aggressively prosecuting cases of fraud related to the coronavirus.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Very simply, we will not allow anyone to exploit the suffering of American citizens for their own profit.
KELLY: One scam the government has been warning against is fake testing for COVID-19. NPR has been investigating a company that was selling tests and our reporting has gotten the attention of law enforcement and members of Congress. NPR's Tom Dreisbach reports.
TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Max Sloves lives in Los Angeles, where he's an employment lawyer. His mom, Peggy, has Alzheimer's, is on hospice care, and he wanted to visit her at home just outside of LA on her 84th birthday - the end of March.
MAX SLOVES: She's not in a condition where I can FaceTime with her and have her even be responsive at all. The ability to put your hand on someone's shoulder right now in her condition is really - it's really meaningful.
DREISBACH: But he wanted to be absolutely sure he did not have COVID-19 before visiting.
SLOVES: I just felt like it wouldn't be responsible to be around her without having some level of confidence that I'm not contagious.
DREISBACH: Then, on March 20, he got a message forwarded from a friend. The subject line - instant COVID-19 test now available, FDA approved. The price for a kit was only $49.95. All you had to do is go to stopcorona28.com, so we bought one. I spoke to other friends of his who bought test kits too. One was pregnant and worried about her exposure. Another had bad chest pain and was concerned she was infected. Sloves says, almost immediately after he clicked purchase, he started to worry it might be a scam. And. In fact, scams are always a problem in a public health emergency. Here's Patti Zettler. She's a former associate general counsel for the FDA and a law professor at The Ohio State University.
PATTI ZETTLER: Whenever we have diseases that lack good treatments, we tend to see companies come out of the woodwork and try to capitalize on people's hopes and fears.
DREISBACH: Federal prosecutors recently went to court to stop one website trying to sell a fake COVID-19 vaccine. The FBI arrested a man on charges that he was selling a fake cure. And in Los Angeles, City Attorney Mike Feuer has been warning about scams involving fake tests.
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MIKE FEUER: Now, the FDA hasn't authorized any test that people can buy and use at home to test themselves. Anybody trying to sell us one is a scammer.
DREISBACH: Of course, the message Max Sloves and his friends got promised just that - a quick at-home COVID-19 test that was FDA approved. According to the receipts, the company actually selling the tests is called The Wellness Matrix Group. I was able to track down their vice president of marketing, David Saltrelli, by phone in Florida. Saltrelli said the tests were made in Hong Kong, he wouldn't get any more specific than that, and he insisted they had been vetted.
DAVID SALTRELLI: Obviously you got to make sure the accuracy of the test. You just can't, you know, just pull a test out of nowhere.
DREISBACH: Then I asked Saltrelli about what the FDA itself says.
The FDA on its website currently says, quote, "at this time, the FDA has not authorized any test that is available to purchase for testing yourself at home for COVID-19," and I'm wondering if you can explain that.
SALTRELLI: Yeah, they don't - they don't really approve. They just make sure - they look at your testing, see that you tested - it was accurate, and, you know, what you're saying, you know, is accurate. So they don't endorse is what I'm trying to say.
DREISBACH: I just want to make sure that you guys are not selling any kind of fake product or that hasn't been validated or approved by the FDA.
SALTRELLI: Right, I understand why you're doing that. Yes. So that's, you know - we're even showing on the site, you know, if you, you know - you can - you can see that - right to the FDA U.S. food and drug. You know, it says what it, you know - what happened.
DREISBACH: The FDA would not comment to me on any individual company, but they confirmed again and again that they still have not given any company approval for at-home testing. Saltrelli told me he would follow up with more information, but that never happened. After we sent questions over several days, the Wellness Matrix Group stopped selling tests. Their website now claims they never intended to sell at-home test kits and says they'll offer full refunds.
I asked the LA city attorney, Mike Feuer, about this company, and in response he said his office sent them a cease and desist letter. Members of Congress and the House Oversight Committee also sent questions. Max Sloves, the guy who tried to buy a test kit so he could visit his sick mother, says, he and his friends never got the kits in the mail. They've tried to dispute the charges on their credit cards but he says, this is about more than the money.
SLOVES: To think that someone would prey upon people's known anxieties and fears in a moment just so fraught with uncertainty and panic, it's so repulsive.
DREISBACH: In the end, he was not able to visit his mother on her birthday, and he's not sure when he'll see her next.
Tom Dreisbach, NPR News, Los Angeles.
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