False AIDS Notice May Not Have Broken Law
Postal inspectors and the U. S. attorney’s office are uncertain whether any laws were broken in the case of a San Diego businessman who in May received a bogus letter falsely notifying him that he had contracted AIDS.
Local doctors described the bogus letter as “weird” and “sick,” but authorities Monday were uncertain whether any charges could be filed, should the perpetrator be caught.
Federal mail-fraud statutes require that there “be a scheme to defraud (someone) of money or property,” Assistant U. S. Atty. George Hardy said Monday in San Diego. “It may be that this wouldn’t necessarily fall under mail fraud. But it sounds like some real sicko is involved.”
Authorities are still uncertain who sent the letter, which included the 45-year-old businessman’s correct Social Security number. The letter indicated that blood testing by a Washington, D. C.-based laboratory had confirmed the existence of the HIV virus that causes AIDS.
Clean Bill of Health
The professional-looking letter had added credibility because the man, who has asked for anonymity, recently had completed blood tests for a general physical conducted by a Kaiser Permanente physician. The businessman received a clean bill of health after that physical examination, Kaiser physician Dr. William L. Sperling said.
But the letter left the man “very upset,” Sperling said. The Kaiser Health Plan member learned that the letter was a hoax when he telephoned his regular physician. The man was reassured about the letter’s bogus nature during an in-office visit, Sperling said.
When Kaiser officials investigated, they found that the alleged laboratory did not exist and that the letter had been mailed in San Diego.
Sperling, who alerted members of the San Diego Medical Society to the bogus letter, said that no similar letters since have surfaced. Sperling also contacted the California Medical Assn. and the American Medical Assn., learning that no other doctor has reported a similar case.
The post office’s investigation has been slowed because the only inspector familiar with the letter has gone on vacation.
“Apparently there was no violation of the law that (postal inspector Dennis Olson) knew of,” said U. S. Postal Service spokesman Gregory Gamache, who had yet to see the letter Monday. “At any rate, it would probably be up to the U. S. attorney’s office whether to prosecute or not.”
Local doctors contacted Monday said that generally accepted medical procedures are designed to keep patients from learning about a life-threatening disease such as AIDS through a letter from a third party such as a testing laboratory.
“We would never have done anything even similar to that,” Sperling said. “Our policy is that a patient would come in for an appointment with a physician,” who would carefully describe test results and follow-up procedures.
UC San Diego’s policy is to “sit down every single patient” tested for AIDS and “talk to them thoroughly before testing is done,” said Brunildo Herrero, a professor of medicine and director of the UC San Diego Ambulatory Care Section. “That way they know exactly what (testing results) mean.”
Counseling is extremely important in AIDS testing because patients can test positive in an initial screening, but test negative in more thorough tests that are subsequently administered, Herrero said.
“If someone tests positive with the initial screening, we’d test it again,” Herrero said. “If they test positive again, we’d use (a definitive) test that takes three or four days to complete.”
Even before testing for AIDS begins, however, UCSD doctors make sure that patients “sign a specific form that acknowledges they understand” the testing procedure, Herrero said.