Last week, my assistant asked if I’d seen the ads on Instagram and YouTube in search of participants in a COVID-19 research study. The payoff? Up to $1,220 and the vaccine for qualified applicants.
My first thought was scam. His was money and access to an early vaccine, but he wondered if it was legitimate. He had filled out a lengthy medical history form that did not ask for any personally identifiable information other than date of birth and gender. He received a follow-up email with a link to the second part of the application process, but hesitated. Several days later, my son-in-law came to me with the same experience.
A quick Google search revealed that a possible COVID scam with around $1,200 earning potential had been circulating via email since at least October of last year. Were the ads on social media part of the scam? I decided to find out and share with my readers here.
What stood out to me was that these two people did not fit the profile of people who fall for such scams. Tech-savvy and in their early 30s, they should have known better, but the fact the ads were seen on mainstream social media gave them a sense of legitimacy. The lesson here is that if an offer exploits a current concern like getting the COVID-19 vaccine, it’s likely a scam regardless of where it comes from — email, text, phone call, social media or a website.
Let’s take a closer look at the advertised study and identify the red flags that point to a scam. The ads are from a number of sources including America Top Doctors. Yes, America Top Doctors, not America’s or American, and that’s your first red flag, a grammar error in the company name and URL. Headline reads: Would you like to participate in a COVID-19 study and earn up to $1,220? Underneath is an asterisk and text that reads, “Can still qualify if you have chronic conditions such as diabetes, obesity or hypertension.”
All three of these conditions increase risk of severe illness from COVID-19 and are prevalent in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half of adults in the United States (108 million, or 45%) have hypertension, 102 million or 42.4% are considered obese and about one-third or 34.2 million have diabetes. No matter how you look at those figures, it’s a lot of people who might eliminate themselves from the study. Here’s our second red flag: an attempt to attract the largest number of people possible.
Answering yes to the question “Are you over 18?” takes you to the survey site screener.acurianhealth.com. The website appears legitimate, but the company’s rating from the Better Business Bureau is an F, its lowest rating. Checking BBB is always a good idea and, in this case, revealed our third red flag. After completing the survey and setting up a new Gmail account for the required email address for security, I was informed there were no open trials in my area. End of story? That remains to be seen. This could be a simple marketing company in the business of recruiting participants in clinical trials.
If I had been asked for a social security number or asked to pay to participate, then we would likely be looking at a scam. The Federal Trade Commission has cautioned consumers to be on the lookout for COVID-19 scams. “If you spot a trial that’s charging people to participate, or demanding your SSN or financial information during screening, be sure to tell the Federal Trade Commission,” Jim Kreidler, FTC consumer education specialist, wrote on the government blog. He also advised that those who do participate in a trial ask to be paid by check, never by direct deposit to a bank account, to protect your account.
If you want to participate in a COVID-19 clinical trial, go to ClinicalTrials.gov instead of clicking from an ad, an email or other incoming source. The website is run by the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health and offers a free searchable database of clinical studies on a wide range of diseases, including COVID-19. You can also use the database to get more information about studies, including whether they’re recruiting participants, and their contact information.