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That ‘free’ DNA test could be a scam that costs thousands, officials warn

Finding out your ancestry? Here’s what happens to your DNA sample.

Millions of Americans are submitting their DNA to companies, like AncestryDNA, to find out more about their ethnic backgrounds. Here's what happens to your sample and the privacy rights you have over your data.
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Millions of Americans are submitting their DNA to companies, like AncestryDNA, to find out more about their ethnic backgrounds. Here's what happens to your sample and the privacy rights you have over your data.

As the old saying goes: There’s no such thing as a free DNA test.

Do-it-yourself DNA tests have taken off across the United States in recent years, but now officials are warning of scammers who promise free kits to steal victims’ private information and defraud health plans in California, Kentucky, Nebraska and beyond.

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum was the latest to warn the public of the scam on Thursday, saying multiple Medicare beneficiaries in the state have reported scammers victimizing them through telemarketing, health fairs and door-to-door pitches.

How does the scam work? First, the scammers offer genetic testing cheek swabs as a ploy to get victims’ Medicare or health plan information, promising the cost of the test will be covered. But instead, the scammers use victims’ personal details to steal their identities. The scammers “can now bill Medicare thousands of dollars for medically unnecessary tests or even services that you never received,” the Oregon fraud alert said.

Oregon officials also warned that the scam provides its perpetrators with “personal genetic information about you regarding your health.” Officials said genetic testing shouldn’t be agreed to unless it’s covered by your plan, medically necessary and ordered by a doctor.

It’s not just Oregon, either.

Nebraska officials warned in March of people offering DNA cheek swabs at assisted living homes and senior centers, which may have been a scam. In Kentucky, Attorney General Andy Beshear warned in April of a similar scam, saying Louisville residents were reporting “a suspicious van driving around paying Medicaid participants $20 for a DNA sample and health insurance information.” And AARP reported that a Northern California retiree was sent a free DNA test to check for cancer risk after fielding a call from a telemarketer.

“They set up in the most impoverished, predominantly black area in our community,” Louisville City Councilwoman Barbara Sexton Smith said of the scam in Kentucky, according to Bloomberg. “They are preying on poor people.”

Just last month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services inspector general raised the alarm about fraudulent genetic testing schemes as well.

“Scammers are offering Medicare beneficiaries cheek swabs for genetic testing to obtain their Medicare information for identity theft or fraudulent billing purposes,” the inspector general’s warning said. “Fraudsters are targeting beneficiaries through telemarketing calls, booths at public events, health fairs, and door-to-door visits.”

Schemes that involve “paying people to participate in medical tests and services would likely violate federal anti-kickback laws meant to stop fraud and abuse at government programs,” Bloomberg reported in April.

And the schemes may be worsening.

Bob Thomas, a former assistant U.S. attorney, wrote for the health news site Stat in June that the federal inspector general’s updated fraud alert “indicates that the problem is ongoing and expanding.”

“If you can get a saliva swab and a Medicare number from an unsuspecting senior and falsify a doctor’s order (or find a shady doctor to write one), there’s an easy four-figure sum to be had,” Thomas wrote. “And if you’re willing to repeat that dodge a few hundred or a few thousand times — you get the idea.”

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Jared Gilmour is a McClatchy national reporter based in San Francisco. He covers everything from health and science to politics and crime. He studied journalism at Northwestern University and grew up in North Dakota.
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