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When Health Workers Aren’t Really Health Workers

He’s a powerful spell-caster who can cure HIV with herbs, and more from my email exchange with a quack.

As an editor of VITAL, I see each reader comment before it goes live. I love plucking the substantive remarks out of a sea of spam—usually offers for pro sports jerseys and links to who-knows-what on YouTube.

But a few months back, one piece of spam caught my eye:

My name is [redacted] from the United States. I am HIV-positive, as HIV has been ongoing in my family for a long time. Someone introduced me to a native medical practitioner named Dr. William. He prepared some medicine for me. At first I was skeptical but I gave it a try. I never believed it until after another test when my doctor said I was HIV-negative and asked me how I did it! Anyone may seek the great Dr. William’s help. Here is his email address…

Over time, several variations on the theme trickled in, all making essentially the same offer but with different names, email addresses, and anecdotes.

I would never publish the comments, but I didn’t delete them right away either. They sat in limbo while I wondered what the scam was, and why anyone would fall for it.

One answer, of course, is desperation.

I promise you with my flesh and blood that you will be cured by the herbal medicine. 

If you’ve ever received a devastating diagnosis or watched a loved one go through it, you may have seen the awful depression and hopelessness that sometimes follow. In those dark times, the risk of being scammed seems a small price to pay for hope.

But what exactly was on offer? And what was the scammer after? Money? Identities?

My curiosity eventually outstripped my restraint:

Dear Dr. William, Can you tell me more about your services? How long does it take? And what is the cost? I’m very interested to hear what you have to offer. Thank you, Margarite

A few hours later, I had a response:

My name is Dr. William and I am a spell caster, well known all over the world. I inherited this power from my grandfather. I want you to know that my spells last forever and have helped many people gain powers and wealth, and cures for HIV and cancer. My child, I want you to know that I have helped so many of my clients with this HIV illness. I want you to have faith and believe that you will surely get healed.

There was more—riddled with spelling and punctuation errors—but you get the idea. He asked me to send some information, such as my name, country, phone number, age, occupation, and a photo of myself. So maybe he was after identities?

Dear Dr. William, Can you tell me what kind of herbal remedy this is and whether it is part of the spell you mentioned? Also, how much do your services cost and how long will the cure take? Finally, before I share information with you, could you tell me why you need this information? Margarite

We went back and forth like this for weeks, me asking questions, Dr. William urging me to have faith.

He needed the personal information for his oracle, he said. And while his services are free of charge, I should let him know how much I can afford to give him as a gift, and he would tell me if it was enough. And of course, there was the price of the herbs (he never revealed which ones he would be using).

I want you to get back to me immediately so that I can quickly send for the herbs. I also want you to know that once I prepare the herbal medicine I will deliver the package to you through Delivery Service so you can get it without delay. I promise you with my flesh and blood that you will be cured by the herbal medicine once you take it. I give you 100% assurance. You are to send the money via Western Union or MoneyGram as soon as possible.

Between this message and the fact that my correspondent never included links in his emails (a common method scammers use to infect your computer or steal your information once you’ve clicked), I had my answer. The scam is about money.

As we celebrate World AIDS Day this year, the World Health Organization urges us to close the gap between those who have access to HIV care and those who don’t. Only 13.6 million of the 35 million people living with HIV today have access to antiretroviral therapy. The gap is wide.

My correspondence with a tech-savvy quack made it clearer than ever to me why we must reach those who need—but don’t yet have access to—adequate HIV care or information. Not only is their health in danger, but they’re also vulnerable to being swindled as they search for hope and companionship, often by health workers who aren’t really health workers.

I still hear from Dr. William regularly. He tells me he has grown bored and worried now that he never hears from me. And his oracle is very angry, he says, as it never hears from me, either.

Well, Dr. William, I’m pretty unhappy with you and your oracle, too.

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