Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Miracle Rabies Test? Maybe Not.

Bernie Madoff was a very good con man ($50 billion up in smoke), and it looks like R. Allen Stanford wasn't so bad either -- it appears he ripped off $8 billion according to yesterday's Wall Street Journal.

So how does a con work?

Well, the first part is to come across as perfectly legitimate. The word "con" comes from the word "confidence," as in "confidence man."

Nothing works better than newspaper clips in this regard, and if they cannot be won legitimately by sustaining the con and getting testimonials from your early marks (as Madoff did), then they can be created quickly by simply putting out a press release with a few golly-gee plausible claims.

They can even be bought if you are willing to put up a few hundred dollars in order to buy a full-page ad masquerading as an article in a local penny-saver advertiser.

And, of course, in this day and age you will need a web site.

To be really effective, the web site should be flashy, but say as little as possible.

The best site will have "get out of jail" language buried in it somewhere -- a line saying the product, diet, get-rich plan or test does not really do what it is supposed to do. "Results may vary." "Examples are for illustrative purposes only." My favorite example is that found in the "Frequently Asked Questions " portion of the Mars WISDOM Panel™ MX test in which they say the test works to identify your breed of dog only if you do not know what breed it is. Perfect!

Remember, con men are not selling steak, they are selling sizzle. They're not selling the pig, they're selling the poke. When you open up the bag, and a cat jumps out, their job is to look you straight in the face and say: "Results may vary."

Now on their web site, and in their press release, it's always good if the con man has a few testimonials and can point to a few credentialed experts or "big names."

Did you know Steven Spielberg parked his money with Bernie Madoff and so too did B'Nai Brith? True!

Now, it would be great if all the testimonials were from real people, and all the credentialed experts were Really Big Names, but there's no reason to get too fussy here. After all, who is going to check? No one!

A PhD in education can be presented as a "Dr." in a medical situation, and you can always pad out a resume with made up expertise in something smart-sounding like "physiology of bio-molecular mechanics" if you cannot find some ancient scientist tottering on the edge of insolvency who will say anything for a few thousand dollars. Can you find a down-on-their heels television star from a minor TV show from the 1960s or 70s? How about a washed out sports figure? There's your perfect spokesperson!

If you are in the business of fishing for dollars, it helps to drop your line in the right waters.

Con men know this, and so they work certain groups very hard. Older Americans are less educated, more trustworthy, and many are also lonely. A perfect mark.

Recent immigrants are also excellent -- if you know their language, they can be plucked like ripe fruit.

Young men and women in emotional distress and searching for answers are often gullible (ask any cult leader), and so too are recent widows and widowers.

Can you establish an affinity through religion or perhaps as an ex-Marine? Praise the Lord! Semper Fie! Perfect.

Of course, the easiest marks are the greedy. Ask any Nigerian grifter working an email scam.

Who doesn't want to get in on the ground floor of the next WalMart, Amazon, or Microsoft?

Who doesn't want to "make millions" with a "wealth building system" based on "winning in the cash-flow business?"

Regular readers of this blog might remember that I have reported before on con men in the world of dogs and cats.

In a post entitled Are Your Gullible? Send Money for Free Test!, I noted that Simon Brodie, the tax cheat who recently started a "Pet Sharing" business has been nailed in court for claiming to have created a "canine influenza" test and a "hypoallergenic cat" which he was only too ready to sell to anyone foolish enough to shell out $4,000 to $7,000 (prices varied).

In fact, as the court noted:

[Brodie] has little background or experience in the market of molecular diagnostic testing. Brodie is unaware of the difference between certain common diagnostic testing techniques, in addition, Brodie testified at deposition that he has never taken a course of a technical or scientific nature, or any courses that focuses on management or business. The evidence shows that any steps Plaintiff took to engage in the proposed business were only preliminary or exploratory in nature. . . In addition, Brodie never developed a formal business plan, Plaintiff had no other employees besides its founder Brodie, Plaintiff never acquired a laboratory or employed a laboratory manager, Plaintiff never contacted an investment bank or venture capital firm to raise capital and Plaintiff never obtained a license to sell the canine influenza test, one of the few products it purported to sell. Furthermore, despite claiming to have a patent pending for its veterinary diagnostic system, aside from Brodie's declaration, Plaintiff has failed to provide the Court with any other evidence regarding the patent."

So what was Brodie's angle?

Hard to say, but I think the goal here was more than selling a few over-priced cats. The goal, I believe, was finding One Perfect Fool who would cough up a lot of "venture capital" money to fund Brodie's pie-in-the-sky "canine influenza test" and "hypoallergenic cat" industries.

What did it matter if there was no market, no science, and no exclusive product?

The goal of a grifter is not to sell steaks; it's to sell sizzle while pocketing steak money.

Was that Brodie's goal? Who knows! The scam never really got off the ground. But if you ask me, that was the mark being played.

OK, but that's yesterday's news. What-cha-got for me today?

Well, I dunno -- you tell me.

You see, a few weeks back, various friends and fellow dog writers lapped down a press release about a new $50 "instant rabies saliva" test.

This test can reduce the number of animals destroyed and save doctors and animal control organizations from the costs associated with traditional testing," said Dyne Immune CEO, Dr. V. James DeFranco, MD.

Hmmmm. Something odd there, but I could not put my finger on it at the moment.

Then, yesterday, Carol Vinzant shot me an email.

Carol is a financial reporter, and a few years back she had called me up when she was writing a story about the high cost of veterinary care. Now she writes on pets for People magazine, and she reads this blog on occasion. She pinged me about something, and I pinged her back about a possible news story (probably a hoax) dealing with Beyonce's dog, Munchie. She was interested. She would check it out. In the interim, what did I know about the company and the people making this new rabies vaccine being touted in the pet press? She mentioned that she had looked up "V. James deFranco, MD" and he appeared to be affiliated with a company selling some sort of oral spray that contained an extract of deer antler velvet "used by movie stars" as well as various products for anti-aging, insomnia, energy and weight loss.

My bullshit meter went through the roof. I suspect Carol knew that it would. She greenlighted me to run with it, and so I did, Googling up a storm in a matter of minutes.

First stop was to check out the original rabies story and the company behind it, "Dyne Immune."

The story had been picked up everywhere, and it all seemed to have been generated by a single press release put out on Marketwire (a pay-to-say press release distribution service).

The press release did not mention a FDA trials, a real research facility, a sponsoring university, or much of anything else.

A quick Google of "Dyne Immune" took me to a very thin web site and a list of characters supposedly affiliated with the company.

I looked for any mention of FDA approval, scientific review, University sponsorship, etc.


Instead, I found a prominent button to an article: "Warwick Valley Humane Society Participates in New Rabies Test."

Eh? That's news?

A quick click on the link, and I found myself looking at an "article" from a local throw-away penny-saver advertiser.

And what did the article say? Nothing! This was not science; this was not even good marketing. It was bad puffery, and it featured a dodgy picture that looked like it was shot in a mobile home.

Terrierman was beginning to smell the familiar odor of rat.

Moving on, I Googled "V. James DeFranco, M.D." and found him affiliated with a company called MaxLife Rewards, but very little else.

That was odd.

You see, according to the Dyne Immune web site, Dr. DeFranco has been everywhere and done quite a lot.

A Google search should have turned up published papers, patents, old speeches, introductory biographies from conference presentations, books, a personal web site, and newspaper clips in which he had been quoted numerous times over the years.

Instead, nothing.

Or almost nothing. I did find a mention of the man as part of tobacco litigation back in 1969 -- 40 years ago.

Hmmm. This was no spring chicken!

Back to "the Google."

What, exactly, is MaxLife Rewards?

Well, it turns out that MaxLife Rewards is a multi-level marketing scheme (i.e. a pyramid scheme) selling dubious health stuff that anyone who is not stupid or insane will stay far away from.

The home page seems to say it all, with a photo of a young slickster giving the "thumbs up" sign, and a little promo squib and a Login/Password box.

Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot.
This looks like an Enzyte commercial!

A few minutes more, and I found this related site.

As soon as I clicked on it, a Windows box popped up on my computer warning me this was probably a "phishing" site and I should NOT give them any information.


Undeterred, I read the sales pitch:

If money were no object, how would your life change?

It is time to unlock the dreams you have kept inside and begin to dream about early retirement, time freedom, a beach-front home, a three-week family vacation each year, or that trip around the world. You may want to use your wealth to help the less fortunate or just spend more time with your children.

Whatever it is you are looking for, MaxLife Research is the vehicle!

Terrierman was definitely starting to smell rodent!

Exploring further, I found that V. James deFranco, MD is affiliated with this very dodgy-looking web site where he is listed as a "staff member."

Eh? This web site has a "staff"?

And then I noticed that this web site refers back to MaxLife Rewards, and that it is looking for someone "who speaks Spanish and has contacts in the Latin market."

Right. Got it now. Latin America. They'll buy anything down there. Not as much education, more trusting of the Internet, a weaker legal system.

Just to confirm my growing suspicions, I Googled the other names associated with Dyne Immune.

First up was "Michael Huchital." A search on the Dyne Immune site found a marketing form and an address at 29 Distillery Rd, Warwick, New York.

A quick search on Zillow confirmed what I suspected: It's a 3-bed, 2-bath house in the rural suburbs of Appalachian New York. No doubt, it's Michael Huchital's home.

I looked back at the Dyne Immune web site and noted that the company said Mr. Huchital was associated with Mount Saint Mary College in New York, but when I looked on that College's web site, his name did not turn up.


I Googled some more and found that Michael A. Huchital was fined $3,750 by USDA for failing to keep rabbits in a minimal standard of care. The court specifically rejected his defense that he ran a research facility.

There is another brief mention of him as being CEO of a startup called Rapid Bio Tests Corporation (assets less than $3,000), but that appears to have fizzled out; Mr. Huchital's employment was terminated after a few months, the company was renamed the Bio-Warm Corporation, and plans were made to begin making some kind of heat-generating cloth.

I Googled Mark L. Anderson (a very common name) and came up with a veterinarian in San Diego, but he is not the right guy. If Dyne Immune's Mark L. Anderson was a veterinarian, you can bet they would have mentioned that fact!

I looked closer at Mr. Anderson's bio on the Dyne Immune web site and noticed that while it describes him as a "toxicologist" it appears his specialty is really the "marketing of dietary supplement products."

Gotcha! A supplements marketing man. The kind of job every toxicologist takes to bolster his reputation in the world of peer-reviewed cutting-edge science.

Or not.

More drilling, and I found this single paper co-written for the "Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition" which puports to examine whether a patented herb-remedy could help maintain testosterone levels in men.

I say purported because only 42 males were studied (split groups of 21), diet was not controlled for, the study was funded by an herb-remedy sales company, and the work was done at the University of Yaounde.

Yaounde? In Cameroon? Jesus, who does research in Cameroon? And why? This is a country where the average income is less than $8 a day. Why wasn't this work done in the U.S. or anywhere else that monkey-meat-on-a-stick is not the local version of fast food?

But at least there was my answer: Mark L. Anderson's real job is not COO of Dyne Immune, but Director of Research & Development at Triarco Industries, a company that sells the kind of natural supplements sold to body builders in mall health and nutrition stores. Got it!

Finally, just for grins, I went to the FDA web site.

For a device, drug, or test kit to be approved in the U.S., it has to get FDA approval. I looked at the main FDA web site, and also at the FDA's Veterinary web site.

Nothing listed for Dyne Immune.

So what's going on here?

You tell me. I have no idea.

All I know for sure is what I have reported here, which is that the more you look the less you find and the shakier the story gets.

I am pretty sure there is no miracle rabies test behind all this.

In fact, the Dyne Immune web site itself says a "negative result does not guarantee that rabies is not present."

There it is: the "get out of jail free" language I have come to look for in these kinds of situations. The price you pay is guaranteed; the product is not.

Not that this is necessarily a con. As I said, who knows?

Third World rabies tests based on quick and cheap saliva samples have been around for a while. Perhaps this is simply a repackaging of that not-too-accurate test.

One thing for sure: the whole thing smells fishy.

Clearly, the goal of the press release was to generate a little "positive press" in order to get someone to come out of the woodwork and throw development cash their way.

Not that there is much to develop. It seems they have a "rabies test" which is not a very good test for rabies.

So am I saying it's all a scam? No. "Results may vary."

But let me ask you this: Why do you need to know? Were you thinking of investing?

Do you need a weatherman to tell you which way the wind blows?

I did not think so. A word to the wise is generally sufficient.



chip1972 said...

You had me with you till the end there.

I don't think being willing to consider and check unexpected statements is bad.

I think it's a sign of 1) having an open mind, because only an open mind will consider an apparently absurd idea, and 2) still being skeptical enough to check things out.

If people were in the habit of checking authorities (like a dictionary), there were be fewer people defrauded by con men in all their various stripes.

Caveat said...

Uh-oh. You may find people lining up with cases that need cracking, given your detection skills.

Thanks for the laugh, I needed it this morning.

PS Somebody had better warn India - they have a big rabies problem over there.

babysweet said...


Once again, you've hit the ball outta the park.

My BS meter is pretty high, but while reading the press release I was also reading a book on contagious disease and vaccination in dogs and cats written several years ago that actually mentions a saliva test being available back then. I assumed it was another issue of why offer a cheap alternative when we can enforce the expensive one...

For the record though, the book was written in 2003 by Catherine JM Diodati, MA, and the quote is "Rabies may be diagnosed by saliva testing and observation, but it is generally most efficiently diagnosed by examining the brain for the virus."

I just assumed this company/individual had improved on previously available practices...

Could it be a re-marketing of the same old not-too-reliable testing? Could it be that simple?

SchoolPsyc said...

Phew. I'm exhausted after getting through all of this. You missed your true calling. We need you on an investigative reporting team. I will definitely spread the word about this new hoax.

YesBiscuit! said...

"My favorite example is that found in the "Frequently Asked Questions " portion of the Mars WISDOM Panel™ MX test in which they say the test works to identify your breed of dog only if you do not know what breed it is."

I just love this.

Mark Churchill said...

Nice piece of investigative reporting--and all done online? If you ever apply to the Washington Post or 60 Minutes (probably not your life's ambition, I realise, but just in case...) you can list any number of us regular readers as references.

[Apropos of nothing, my verification word is "fultable". That really sounds like it should mean something...]

Roccus said...

I'd like to set the record straight on the Rapid Rabies Test Kit.
This kit was developed by my lifelong friend, who has his PhD in Biochemistry. He his doctorate topic was thin layer latex chromotography. We met in College in 1972 after serving in the US Military. His integrity is unquestionable.
He became intertested in a Rabies diagnostic kit after he and his dog were attacked by a rabid racoon.
So here are some of the facts that we all need to consider.
Rabies virus is preferentially concentrated in the saliva of an infected animal. The only CDC acceptable method of testing requires that the suspect animal be killed, and the brain tissue be assayed. Let me refrain: Kill the animal, cut off the head, send it to a laboratory, dissect the brain, and use an immunoflourescant test.
A "kit" will provide wildlife researchers a more conveient and cost effected method of tracking the progression of rabies.
Most CDC lab assays are done on bats. Why bats? Bats eat insects that feed on the dead bodies of other animals.
A "kit" can be used to test suspect animals in 3rd world countries that do not have easy access to laboratories. Dangerous Rabies outbreaks are more frequent and deadly to children outside of the USA.
The applications for this "kit" are widespread and will only help in the control and vaccination efforts to combat Rabies worlwide.

The kit works! Oh yes, the disclaimer..Not really, here are the facts. If an animal has been recently infected and the virus has not entered the general circulation, there will not be any rabies virus in the brain nor the saliva. So there can never be a guarantee. Here is another example.
A woman who has been impregnated last night will not have a positve pregnancy test in the morning.
But if an animal has rabies and has not yet shown neurological symptoms, this test will have a positive result.
So not to be an anonymous coward:
John J Caprice

PBurns said...

I notice that you do not mention FDA trials, a real research facility, or a sponsoring university.

You do not address the use of the "penny saver" press, or the association with the fly-by night types.

You are unresponsive to the fact that this appears to be nothing more than a repackaged saliva test of the type that has been around for a long time.

Your knowledge of rabies appears to be a bit thin. Rabies treatment for someone bit by an animals does NOT require cutting off the head of the animal. If it did, we would not have treatment of people who are bitten when the animal is not in hand.

Surely you know this?

In fact, rabies testing does not do much. If you are really serious about knocking down rabies, you spread bait vaccines as is being done all over the East Coast. What you do NOT spread are rabies test kits that have false negative rates so high they come with a warning sticker! If you are bitten by an animal tested by this kit, and the results are negative, you STILL have to get the rabies shot, as who can risk a false negative? No one!

You say Mr. Huchital is a fine fellow. I did not say otherwise. I just gave people the facts as found and I will let them decided if they want to take seriously anyone associated with this marketing effort which seems unconnected to sound science (FDA? University affiliation? A real laboratory? No? I guess not).


Roccus said...

Apparently my first response was lost somwhere do to my newbie status. Here is a shortened version.

The rapid rabies test kit concept is not intended or promoted to diagnose rabies when a human has been exposed to a potentially rabid animal.

It is designed to aid wildlife and public health researchers in the field. It provides a portable field test that will aid the researcher in determining the distribution and direction of rabies vectors.

Sorry to be so short, But I am pressed for time. More later.

John J Caprice

PBurns said...

Your own press release was titled: "Dyne Immune's Portable, Low-Cost Rabies Screen Delivers Life-Saving Information to Veterinarians, Animal Workers in Minutes."

The Dyne Immune web site features a picture of a puppy and a cat and talks about the threat of rabies to people. The clear intent here was to sell this seriously flawed test as a diagnostic tool for human-animal interactions, not as a epidemeoligical research tool (which is not a commercial market moved by press releases).

I think we all have the story at this point: No lab, no capital, no FDA approval, and apparently no new science.

Got it. And good luck with it.

And yes, time is short and I am not wasting more time on it.


David said...

Sympathy is one thing Bernie Madoff won’t see in the courtroom as he appears later this month for sentencing. The Poster Child for Greed, Madoff won’t likely see daylight in the outside world for a long long time. Many are urging the judge to give him the maximum 150 year sentence.