What’s the deal with the rogue COVID testing sites in Philly? Here’s everything we know

How to spot them, and why they’re so problematic.

Photo-taker Nicole Michalik, 95XTU and "Lipstick League" podcast host, was one of several who saw the sketchy sites set up in Center City

Photo-taker Nicole Michalik, 95XTU and "Lipstick League" podcast host, was one of several who saw the sketchy sites set up in Center City

Twitter / @NicoleisNik
michaelawinberg-2020-2

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The Philadelphia Department of Health is warning residents to beware another potential pandemic-related scam. Yeah, Philly Fighting COVID deja vu.

Health officials sent out a notice Monday afternoon saying they’d caught wind of some small pop-up tents offering free COVID testing in Center City. With tests so hard to come by, on its surface that sounds like a good thing. Problem is, staffers were allegedly lying about what agency they’re from, and requesting unusual amounts of personal information.

Getting tested at an unverified site can pose risks. The company that’s likely running Philly’s sketchy sites has had some issues in the past, according to news reports. In Chicago, people have been asked to pay out of pocket for tests (which are legally required to be covered by insurance). You can’t be sure unaffiliated organizations will give accurate results — and you don’t know what they’ll do with your personal info once you hand it over.

The Philly Health Department maintains an online database of legitimate testing sites, but it doesn’t necessarily have every single one. “Sometimes partners will set up testing events without notifying us,” said spokesperson James Garrow.

City officials told The Inquirer Tuesday afternoon this whole situation has inspired them to work on regulating test sites going forward, but details and timeline are as yet unclear.

In a city strapped for testing resources, how do you know for sure an operation is legit? And what do you do if you think you’ve spotted a fake? Here’s a guide to what we know.

What’s going on with these so-called fake sites?

Over the winter holidays, some people who visited COVID testing tents in Center City were allegedly told the sites were funded by FEMA.

The White House did say last week Philadelphia was getting federally funded pop-up testing, but they haven’t opened yet. And when the Health Department asked FEMA about the existing pop-ups, officials at the federal agency said they hadn’t set up any sites in Philly at all. Red flag number one.

Staff at the tents were also asking some patients for social security numbers, according to the Inquirer. Another big red flag. You should not have to hand that over in order to get tested.

Where were these pop-ups?

Two pop-up tents have been officially reported so far: one at 13th and Chestnut, and one at 15th and Chestnut. But there were likely others. Billy Penn readers reported other locations at 18th and Chestnut and Broad and Snyder. The Health Department, however, cannot confirm these newer testing sites belonged to the same proprietor.

“That’s our big worry with these: They just show up and then disappear. We don’t know who they’re affiliated with or if they’re one or many companies,” said spokesperson Garrow.

Who’s running these sites? 

Af first, the city wasn’t sure. Said the spokesperson on Tuesday morning: “We don’t know.”

The Inquirer dug deeper, and discovered the Center City pop-up samples were being analyzed by Chicago-based company Lab Elite. That company is seemingly legit, since it’s registered in the CDC’s database. But on its website, it only mentions running testing sites in Illinois.

Apparently, the tents in Philly were set up by a contractor, unbeknownst to Lab Elite, which did not respond to Billy Penn’s request for comment.

So is the company sketchy?

Lab Elite blamed the issues with the Philly tents on their local staff. Founded in 2020, it appears to have run into other issues in the past — like when a shipment of hundreds of COVID test samples was mistakenly delivered to a random house in Hawaii, instead of their labs. (In news articles about this instance, the company is called a slightly different name: Elite Labs.)

What’s the risk of visiting a sketchy testing site?

For one thing, there’s a potential risk that your personal info will be exposed.

“A legitimate site will take your personal information to alert you about the results and report them to the Health Department,” said Garrow. “We don’t know what some of these other sites will do with your personal information.”

Fake testing sites have been a thing since the beginning of the pandemic; the FTC put out a warning about it back in April 2020.

But with the omicron variant fueling a surge that’s bringing record numbers of positive cases, scammers see new opportunity. Test sites popping up in other cities have been associated with some pretty serious issues. In Chicago, workers have gone maskless, they’ve charged patients for free tests, and potentially produced inaccurate results.

How can I spot a fake testing site?

Per Garrow, there are a number of red flags to look out for. Be suspicious of a site if:

  • There’s no logo on the materials
  • The pop-up tent is in the middle of the sidewalk
  • It’s not affiliated with the storefront or building where it’s set up

What do I do if I see one?

If you’re not sure about a site, you can ask the staffers who they’re affiliated with and then give that company a call. You can also reach out to the Health Department to ask if a site is real, at 215-685-5488 or covid@phila.gov.

What if I need a COVID test?

First thing’s first, check Philly’s database of COVID testing sites. There you’ll be able to find a verified list of places where you can get tested.

But full disclosure: if you hadn’t noticed, testing is pretty hard to come by right now. Unless you get lucky, you’ll likely have to wait a few days or even a week to get screened. In the meantime, the Health Department is offering an admittedly unsatisfying solution:

“Due to the overwhelming need for testing right now, people who are experiencing symptoms, but cannot find testing, are encouraged to act as if they are already positive.”

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