A few swabs inside your cheek can unfold mysteries of the past and a glimpse into the future. Those tiny bits of tissue, with an individual's DNA equation, can reveal ancestors, history, unknown relatives, and even potential future health risks such as cancer or dementia.
But, that DNA test kit in the wrong hands could compromise your personally identifiable information, medical history and, as if that's not enough, cost you thousands of dollars.
What I'm talking about is known as a genetic testing scam, one of many types of Medicare fraud. The scam is increasing to a point that within the last three months, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a fraud alert to warn consumers.
Scammers are popping up across the country, offering Medicare beneficiaries cheek swabs for genetic testing through telemarketing calls, booths at public events, health fairs, and even door-to-door visits. In the Portland metro area, Better Business Bureau Northwest + Pacific has learned there are at least two "companies" claiming to offer this service: Integrity Health and USA Labs.
Here's how it works: You're offered the "free" service to get your cheeks swabbed. And it is free, at the time. But what consumers don't realize is genetic testing is not covered by Medicare insurance unless deemed a medical necessity by a doctor. So, if and when that testing kit is sent to a lab, the consumer is all of a sudden on the hook for the cost, which runs up to $10,000. This is known as insurance fraud.
However, the bigger issue here is the information the consumer gives during the process. Reports to BBB say that scammers ask for the person's Medicare ID card and supplemental insurance information, which can be used later for identify theft purposes.
To be clear, there are legitimate companies that perform DNA testing, but it's critical you check with your insurance first to discuss coverage. And, if you do decide to use a genetic testing service, ask what they do with your information and personal data. In the U.S. alone, there are more than 10,000 companies pooling and selling personal data as a commodity, according to Bloom. Unfortunately, the part most data collectors are interested in is how they can use that data to maximize profits — not to spend money and resources on keeping that information safe.
Here are BBB's tips to avoid this growing scam:
• Be suspicious of anyone who requests your Medicare number. If anyone other than your physician's office requests your Medicare information, do not provide it. If your personal information is compromised, call 1-800-MEDICARE.
• If you want to use genetic testing to screen for cancer or other diseases, consult your physician first before using a new vendor.
• If something is free and sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Always remember to read the fine print of any service, medical or otherwise.
Danielle Kane is Portland marketplace manager for Better Business Bureau Northwest + Pacific, covering Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Alaska and Hawaii.
Quality local journalism takes time and money, which comes, in part, from paying readers. If you enjoy articles like this one, please consider supporting us.
(It costs just a few cents a day.)