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5 bad scams

Article

Los Gatos, Calif. - Plain-clothes police entered Dr. Ian Stone's practice the morning of his office's Christmas party, quietly identified a receptionist and arrested her in front of the entire staff.To the small-animal veterinarian's surprise, the receptionist was accused of stealing clients' credit-card information, which she allegedly forwarded to a boyfriend who was racking up bills totaling an estimated $400,000.

LOS GATOS, CALIF. — Plain-clothes police entered Dr. Ian Stone's practice the morning of his office's Christmas party, quietly identified a receptionist and arrested her in front of the entire staff.

To the small-animal veterinarian's surprise, the receptionist was accused of stealing clients' credit-card information, which she allegedly forwarded to a boyfriend who was racking up bills totaling an estimated $400,000.

Since then, Stone contacted clients he believes could have been affected, sent personal letters to every client and wrote an open letter to the rural, affluent community of Los Gatos, where he practices.

"I've had two interactions where clients have threatened to sue me, but for the most part, everyone's pretty understanding," he says.

Stone continued with the party, which served as a team-building event, he says. Still, the practitioner now insists on background checks and drug tests for all employees. The office no longer records clients' driver's license and Social Security numbers and keeps all credit-card information under wraps, he says.

From the school of hard knocks: A receptionist's theft of credit-card information left veterinary practice owner Dr. Ian Stone of Los Gatos running client damage control. In the end, only two clients threatened to take legal action.

"I would tell other veterinarians to eliminate their liability this way," Stone says. "This one person tried to ruin the faith I had in my staff. I see this as a blessing. It's like an act of God. No one ever plans to have this happen."

For sale: DVM and technician degrees

NATIONAL REPORT — Diploma mills date back to the 14th century, but modern technological advancements now churn out more sophisticated players, turning fraudulent education into an estimated $500-billion business. Online outfits sell diplomas from virtual schools such as Belford University, where a counselor explains to DVM Newsmagazine that students earn degrees based on "life experience." One can purchase a degree in veterinary medicine (albeit research) for roughly $700, he says.

Other companies produce counterfeit diplomas from legitimate universities, explains John Bear, author of several books on the diploma-mill craze. In 1985, U.S. Rep. Claude Pepper bought a fake doctorate in psychology to show how easy it was to proclaim himself Dr. Pepper. At the time, he asserted that more than 500,000 Americans obtained false credentials, estimating 1,000 of them to be phony veterinarians.

Fast Fact

"Absolutely nothing happened as a result of those congressional hearings," recalls Bear. "I'm not aware of any more recent numbers concerning the veterinary profession, but this has become huge business, and it's especially rampant in the medical professions."

While former FBI investigator Allen Ezell has no DVM degrees, he does have credentials to show he's a lawyer and medical doctor, twice over. His phony diplomas come with transcripts and a verification entity. When reviewing the credentials of veterinarians and technicians, he advises owners to take time to verify that contact numbers and addresses match the program's legitimate information.

"Ask to see lots of identification, too," Ezell suggests. "You can buy documents to show that you're anybody. It's very scary out there."

Consultant con artists

FREDERICKSBURG, VA. — When Dr. Gerri Reid saw an ad for a consultant in 2003, she called his references, conducted an interview and, at age 28, hired him to negotiate construction of her own practice.

The consultant secured funding, negotiated the building contract and hired an architect. But after construction started, Reid noticed no one was getting paid. The consultant allegedly embezzled her bank-loaned funds.

"Just when we were about to open, things started getting fishy," she recalls. "He would never answer my calls. He would come up with lies. I paid for equipment I never received."

In order to open, Reid took out a home equity loan. She's since lost her practice.

"My landlord sued me because I didn't open on time and didn't give him rent. I counted pennies to pay this man back. Now lenders won't touch me. I've lost $100,000 or more, I guess."

Trying to catch the consultant "is like nailing Jell-O to the wall," Reid says. "He's got several driver's licenses and several Social Security numbers. It's a shame that authorities have not caught up with him."

Dr. Tammy Hux, who practices in Evans, Ga., feels Reid's pain. She conducted just as much background research before hiring the same consultant to develop her first practice.

"I needed someone to help me negotiate contracts and look out for my best interests," she recalls. "He would say, 'I'm going to buy you X-ray equipment, and then would pad the bills. I started getting suspicious and called the loan companies. The X-ray machine would cost $5,000, for example, and he would charge me $9,000. The exam tables, surgical equipment — everything was padded."

The consultant also pocketed a $40,000 loan in Hux's name. "They sent him the money, and he never gave it to me. I would make payments for the loan on my personal credit card."

She was out $200,000 in bank loans and $25,000 on credit cards. That forced Hux into personal and business bankruptcy. Her attempts to contact the consultant were in vain.

"In the middle of all this, he moves to Phoenix. He bought himself a $350,000 house, which I like to say I built for him," she says. "I would clearly love to go after this guy. I didn't have the personal wherewithal to do it. I've tried to go to the police, and they say no crime has occurred. Civilly, I don't have the money to do it."

Drug diversion, theft

RALEIGH, N.C. — Two teenagers were arrested Jan. 18 for allegedly breaking in to a Raleigh, N.C., veterinary practice and stealing more than $4,000 worth of controlled substances. Authorities reportedly found the accused, one of whom worked in the practice's kennel, in possession of clonazepam, morphine, Fentanyl, ketamine, Telazol, phenobarbital, diazepam and butorphanol tartrate upon their arrest, police records show.

It's a crime many practices face when narcotics are stored on site. While break-ins appear on the rise, inside jobs are just as common. Last month, a veterinary technician from a Denver suburb admitted to using syringes to steal morphine from bottles and replacing the drug with saline solution. Pain expert Dr. Robin Downing says a Colorado State University research program recently dealt with the same situation.

"It's a reminder that we need to be cautious," she says. "There is no doubt we as veterinarians are targets. We keep drugs on our premises."

Drug shoppers also can be a problem, although Downing, who co-owns Windsor Veterinary Clinic in Windsor, Colo., admits she's never encountered the situation. Emergency veterinarians are especially vulnerable, she says, because by the nature of their work, they rarely have long-term client relationships.

Downing advises veterinarians to lock up all drugs in unmarked boxes that are bolted to the wall and limit those with access to the key. Proper-record keeping can act as an early alert to theft, she adds.

To assure owners aren't using their pet's medication, Downing reassesses pain-management cases at least every 60 days.

"I never Rx morphine for longer than a 30-day treatment period. We take the same sort of precautions for seizure patients," she says.

Telephone tricks

LANCASTER, N.Y. — When Dr. Greg Upton noticed his phone bill was a little higher than in previous months, it was already too late. Charges listed as "enhanced services" for an Internet service provider tacked on a monthly fee of $29.95 from a company he'd never dealt with.

"It wasn't easy to find since I have my DSL and ISP fees charged on my phone bill," the Houston-area practitioner says. "I checked previous month's bill, and it was there, too."

Authorities call it phone "cramming," and it appears a growing consumer scam. Companies apparently sneak unauthorized, misleading or deceptive charges on telephone bills, hoping customers aren't paying attention. Most recently, Upton's also been billed $24 a month by a publisher's business service that claims it received phone authorization for five-year's worth of various magazine subscriptions. Small businesses are especially vulnerable, authorities say, because they receive number invoices that often contain multiple charges, making it more confusing to weed out fraudulent players.

When Upton called the Internet services company, it played back an "obviously fabricated" recording in which his employee supposedly OK'd the services. "They claimed this was a valid authorization for their fees."

Some harsh words from the veterinarian eventually resulted in a refund. He advises other practitioners to check their bills each month and warn employees who answer the telephone. The publisher's business service, which claims Upton's practice manager gave voice authorization, likely used the same tactic as the Internet services provider, he says.

"If the solicitor asks, 'Is this ABC Animal Clinic?' tell them to respond 'This is ABC Animal Clinic,' rather than saying 'yes.' Once they recognize this is a solicitor and not a client or regular company you deal with, tell them to say 'no thanks' and hang up," he says.

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