Not All Hands Are Helping: Protecting Your Practice from Predators
One thing about a crisis is that it often brings out the best of humanity. Quite often when some catastrophe strikes, we see communities near and far come together to extend a helping hand in a variety of forms to uplift, strengthen, and rebuild when the need calls for it. Whether a natural disaster or horrific tragedy, the spirit of caring and community is what often binds us and sees us through even the worst of times.
Even now, in the midst of unprecedented societal restrictions and economic uncertainty, we still see the American spirit and generosity shining through. Schools and churches making sure that out of work families are fed, those stuck at home finding ways to make masks for our healthcare and other essential workers.
Certainly, even our healthcare community has had to adapt to changes overnight. Going from a system that was focused on face-to-face care to limiting contact in order to minimize the spread of COVID19. Perhaps never before in modern history has our nation – our world- been faced with such a drastic and rapid altering to our everyday life and business.
But even as so many have risen to the challenge to serve and adapt to these changing conditions, there are those who like a hungry predator are simply waiting for the weak, desperate or unaware; waiting to prey. It’s unfortunate that in a time where so many in the medical industry are struggling to continue to provide care to their patient population while continuing to look fearfully at the decreasing revenue that they must also be wary of unscrupulous vendors or those who have less than reputable intentions.
The sad side of any crisis is that while it brings out the good in people, it also brings out some of the worst as well. The charlatans, the vultures, the ticks that serve no real purpose than to perpetuate misery and to feed on the trust or desperation. Protecting yourself and your business can be especially difficult in a time like this and COVID19 has already shown us that these predators are out there and prepared to do whatever it takes with no regard to how much harm it may cause your already fragile business structure.
Becoming aware is the first step in protecting your business against the threat of dishonest business practitioners. Take just a few minutes to stay informed about what is happening throughout the industry and in the business world in general. It’s easy to become focused to the point of obsession with all the daily news about the COVID19 data, statistics, and updates, but don’t forget that there is a wealth of other information out there and you still have the nuts and bolts of a business to operate.
Where are the risks to your practice? Right now, there tend to be three major areas; supplies, finance, and technology. What does this mean to a medical practice operator? Quite simply that they know where you are most vulnerable and are attacking in those places.
Here’s what we are seeing so you can be aware.
Cybercriminals have launched more phishing and other forms of internet attacks since the onset of the Coronavirus awareness than ever before. According to KnowBe4 phishing attacks are up 667% in just the month of March. There have been dozens of ways that hackers have been using terminology and the actual “COVID19” term as a means to scare both users into clicking through both hazardous emails and links that could lead to a breach of your business or data.
Data security administrators are warning that scams such as emails warning the recipient that action is needed regarding COVID19 preparedness for banking, healthcare, or other essential functions have been on the rise. Additionally, phishing and the use of publicly available figures such as CEOs, managers, and other recognized leaders within organizations are often used in order to lend credibility to bogus COVID19 phishing scams.
A general word of caution for you and your staff is to warn everyone to ignore ALL emails with anything related to COVID19 in the subject line unless they are certain it is from a trusted source/sender to avoid subjecting your practice to a potential data breach.
Supply & Inventory:
It seemed to have started with the mad rush to hoard toilet paper and cleaning supplies, only to have many of those same items turn back up in the marketplace for sale at exorbitant prices. While that sort of price gouging is bad enough, worse is the near-record number of scams that involve false claims of disinfectants and sanitizers that promise to effectively kill or protect against the coronavirus. These seem to prey more on the general public that is less knowledgeable, but many are still seeping their way into the healthcare market by virtue due mainly to a lack of usual resources.
With the disruption of the traditional supply chain, many operators are turning to secondary or even tertiary vendors to order everything from janitorial supplies to PPE in a desperate move to protect and outfit their employees. They are being met with offers by sellers to deliver everything from sterile gowns, masks, and sanitizer from group chats to guys operating out of the back of panel vans.
One New Jersey physician, in a desperate attempt to protect his staff, turned purchasing surgical masks and gowns from someone he met through group chat, wiring over $12,000 to the seller and then meeting the person at a warehouse that was loaded with medical supplies, yet they were obviously not a reputable or licensed vendor. Fortunately, he did receive his supplies and was not otherwise scammed – other than paying a ridiculous 700% markup.
But it shows that there are those out there sitting on stockpiles medical and janitorial supplies simply waiting on a crisis in order to prey financially on those desperate enough to pay. And of course, there are also stories where the outcome was not as fortuitous. Those were the money was taken and nothing was received in return or products were substandard.
We’ve even seen that there have been products marketed to the public and practitioners alike claiming to be “approved” or valid for testing to detect the virus. The Food and Drug Administration has already issued over a dozen warning letters to companies that have been advertising unproven treatments or tests and various state attorneys general have been actively ordering cease and desist against these same organizations that are preying on unsuspecting – but fearful- consumers.
The best word of advice here is “buyer beware”. It’s easy to understand that as a medical practice operator you feel trapped between providing what is necessary for your staff and operations to function at a high and safe level, yet also not being held hostage by fraudulent vendors. This is the time to rely on your established vendor relationships. The tried and true supply chains are working overtime to produce the necessary inventory and other reputable manufacturers are stepping up to fill in the gaps. Don’t let fear and desperation push you to make poor financial decisions or worse, put you in danger of working with a dishonest vendor.
Continue to stay in touch with your supply chain representative. Communication is key.
Perhaps the worse type of predator out in the marketplace right now are those portraying themselves to be reputable lenders or others who pretend to represent legitimate or known banks or financial institutions. In many cases, these folks are offering money to operators who find themselves in desperate financial situations due to loss of patient volume and the resulting loss of revenue. Faced with the inability to meet payroll, rent, and other operational expenses, many of these practice owners are eagerly looking for options to keep their businesses solvent.
Despite the Federal Government’s various assistance programs, there are many practices that are fearful that help will come and be too little and too late. Urgent care centers, as well as most private and specialty practices, have experienced a decrease in patient volumes since the start of March that range anywhere from 50-70%. Some practices have closed altogether; especially those that are specialty or elective in nature.
Even with the implementation of telemedicine, the loss of revenue has made many operators cut staffing and hours of operation in an effort to save their practice in the hopes that once the crisis is over, things will rebound and return to pre-COVID19 normal.
In the meantime, offers of low or no-interest loans and unsecured loans often seem like a life preserver. Each day business owners are bombarded by advertisements in their mailbox and inbox that seem to offer them a means to put more operational capital in the bank to help pay the bills.
But often, these offers are dangerous to become involved with or are flat-out fraudulent. According to the Small Business Administration (SBA), there are some things that business owners should be aware of when they receive offers that seem tempting.
- If the person contacting you about the loan states they represent the SBA, its likely fraud. The SBA does NOT directly reach out to businesses or individuals to solicit loans.
- This includes the various Federal Government Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) and Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) – there are no Federal Agencies directly soliciting businesses or individuals to apply for any of these programs. If you are contacted, do not give our financial information to someone claiming to represent any agency that is “assisting” with the application for any sort of loan or grant.
- Loans that promise SBA approval but require payment ahead of time/upfront or offer high-interest bridge loans in the interim are usually fraudulent. BEWARE! The SBA does not guarantee approval by securing an upfront fee.
- Loans that involve excessive fees are in association with the SBA are typically fraudulent. The SBA places limits on the type and amount of fees that can be charged.
- Be wary of anyone that says they represent your bank or a well-known bank, offering to assist with providing financial relief. If it’s not someone that you regularly do business with, be sure to do some homework before giving out any personal or business information.
Finally, if you are contacted by any suspicious entities or individuals, be sure to report them to the SBA or OIG (Office of Inspector General.) The OIG’s hotline is 800-767-0385 or online at, https://www.sba.gov/about-sba/oversight-advocacy/office-inspector-general/office-inspector-general-hotline.
While no one really has a crystal ball to know when this crisis will resolve and business will return to normal for the United States, most of us can hold onto the confident trust that things will eventually go back to the way they were. Will there be some differences? That seems to be a certainty if for no other reason than most of us will have learned from this experience and will be implementing specific changes in the way we conduct business moving forward.
Without a doubt, our daily lives will forever be impacted; even if it takes a few months or even years, people will be less likely to trust close contact. To overlook a casual sneeze or cough. And most definitely, we won’t take for granted the ability to enjoy those things we haven’t had available for the past couple of months.
But from a business perspective, things will change as well, especially in the healthcare arena. No longer will providers assume that face-to-face care is the be-all-do-all delivery system. It simply cannot be. COVID19 has taught us that. Urgent care and primary care operators will now realize how important PPE really is and it means more than just having a bunch of different size gloves in the storage room.
We will all have to take a hard look at our operations and business continuity plans; some for the very first time. But often the best thing to come out of a crisis is phenomenal change.
Patrice Pash, BSN RN