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Ethics Survey: Black hat marketing baffles the best providers

March 01, 2017

In an increasingly competitive landscape, treatment centers might find it hard to compete with those who are gaming the system with deceptive, “black hat” marketing tactics. Marketers might overstate the center’s service capabilities, for example, or pressure the potential patient into an admission without clinical rationale. The honest operators feel like they are at a competitive disadvantage right out of the gate.

More than 9% of overall BHE Ethics Survey respondents report that another entity has attempted to use their organization’s name, phone number or identity to market to new patients. When the responses are filtered to include executives only, 24.1% report their organizations were victims of marketing identity theft.

Keeping tabs on tricky tactics

Even the most established treatment center organization can be the target of sneaky maneuvers.

In November 2016, Ethan Loomis, the website and social media manager for Rosecrance Health Network, was alerted by a staff member that one of the organization’s phone numbers listed online by Google Maps had been altered. It was a concern because so many potential patients look for treatment options online. Loomis soon discovered that the correct number for Rosecrance had been deleted and swapped out for a call center that was headhunting for patients.

When Loomis dialed the posted phone number and asked the call center agent about the issue, the agent dodged the question entirely. Loomis wondered how the slippery switch even happened in the first place.

“I couldn’t get an answer, so I dug deeper and found Google will give you a history of the phone numbers,” Loomis tells BHE. “There was a lot of activity at end of October, and I saw the number had been switched for other numbers all on the same day, and they all led back to that call center, which owns many numbers.”

Google has some protections in place and might have called to verify the swapped out number like a secret shopper, Loomis says. But since the call center was touting addiction services—even if it wasn’t using the Rosecrance name specifically—a Google agent likely wouldn’t have caught the discrepancy.

Loomis was able to log into Google My Business to suggest an edit of the listed phone number and replace it with the correct number that truly rang at the Rosecrance center. The posting was fixed at last, but in all, there was a week and a half gap of time when the posted number was ringing elsewhere.

“These are predatory practices, and these are trademarked organizations it is happening to,” says Phil Eaton, president and CEO of Rosecrance Health Network.

Eaton says the Illinois behavioral health association is exploring how black hat marketing can be reported and prevented, but such tactics are extremely difficult to prove.

“The problem is each time we get an incident rectified, it probably pops up in another place,” he says. “And these call centers are very motivated by financial rewards by selling referrals, so they are very crafty in the way they increase the calls to their centers.”

False advertising

Eaton is wary of call centers, including their television commercials that he believes are deliberately misleading. The commercials depict a medical provider and imply that a clinician would answer a phone call, which typically is not the case. By calling a number himself, he discovered that agents only ask about ability to pay and send the uninsured to the SAMHSA website rather than offering any connection to treatment.

“I’d be willing to bet if this was about diabetes, breast cancer, heart disease or some other more conventional chronic disease, there would be a lot more noise on this subject,” Eaton says. “If someone was doing this for breast cancer with the same kind of schtick we’re seeing in behavioral health, you’d have attorney generals in so many states falling all over themselves to end this practice.”

Eaton says he has no idea how the online phone-number swapping incident might have affected Rosecrance or the patients who weren’t able to connect with its services.

“We’re being more vigilant now,” Loomis says. “We check on a weekly basis. But the tactics and unethical schemes change month to month, and they’re always finding new ways.”

See more results from the BHE Ethics Survey.

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