Fake JCAHO surveyors and false alarms still a problem

Hospitals are still at risk from people posing as surveyors from JCAHO and other accrediting organizations, but authorities say there are no new leads on who the frauds are or why they are trying to gain access. There is a heightened awareness of the impostors, however, as evidenced by recent false alarms.

Officials say terrorists may be behind the multiple incidents in which people pose as JCAHO surveyors, doctors, or government officials to gain access to hospitals. While there still is no way to know for sure what is behind the attempts, experts in hospital security and terrorism say the most likely explanation for these impostors' attempts to gain access is that they are collecting information for future attacks on health care facilities.

Joe Cappiello, JCAHO vice president for accreditation field operations, says the impostors still pose a threat. He urges risk managers to question anyone claiming to be a JCAHO surveyor at your facility. At least two more incidents of JCAHO impostors have been reported recently, in Seattle and Hawaii, he says.

Other odd events taking place too

"And I've heard through the grapevine that there have been ongoing events, not necessarily impostors, but events that you would call odd and suspicious," he says. "Things like people photographing the emergency room and facilities, odd phone calls asking about surge capacity, and weird things like that. Ordinarily we might have said these were people with criminal intent, but in this day and age you can't turn a blind eye to other sorts of things going on."

Cappiello says two people entered a hospital in Seattle and claimed to be JCAHO surveyors, consistent with previous impostor incidents. When hospital officials started questioning them, they disappeared. The incident in Hawaii was similar, with a single person claiming to be a surveyor. But the hospital had just recently completed a JCAHO survey, so officials immediately questioned the man's identity. He became flustered and fled the premises, Cappiello says.

JCAHO continues investigating the incidents and urging risk managers to be vigilant, and Cappiello says the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is now beginning to collect data on the incidents.

"I'm hearing that since the late spring, when we first reported these events, there have been somewhere around 70 events that have been reported," he says. "Those are not all impostor events. They include all sorts of events, including people hanging out on hospital property and taking photographs of the ER."

Hospital officials, and even the general public, are much more aware of the impostor incidents now, Cappiello says. That assessment is borne out by a recent incident at Raritan Bay Medical Center in Perth Amboy, NJ. Cappiello had heard of the incident as another reported impostor, but hospital spokeswoman Deborah Sellman says the whole thing was a false alarm. In July, someone called a state tip line and reported overhearing people in the hospital's parking lot talking about "inspectors" and trying to get into the emergency department. Their car had out-of-state license plates.

No one ever tried to gain access to the hospital, but the report garnered media attention locally. Raritan's security director investigated the report and found that the people in question were a family traveling through the area when the wife got sick and went to the emergency department. The husband and another person traveling with them were in the parking lot discussing how the couple was about to buy a new house and needed home "inspectors" to look at it first.

"Someone overheard that conversation, and it became impostors trying to break into the hospital," Sellman says.

Caller claims to be JCAHO phone surveyor

Before working in health care, James M. Roberts, CHPA, CAS, director of safety and security for Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, spent decades working in counterterrorism efforts for the U.S. Army. Roberts, a certified antiterrorism specialist, has been tracking the reports of impostors. He says the incidents appear to be continuing, and he is still worried that the impostors are terrorists.

Roberts says he has heard of another recent incident in which someone called a hospital and said he was conducting a JCAHO telephone survey. When the hospital official replied that JCAHO does not do telephone surveys, the caller hung up.

As with the past incidents, Roberts says the impostors seem to be asking scripted questions and appear to be part of a concerted effort to gain information about hospitals. Too many hospitals have been contacted for it to be a coincidence, he says.

"Someone is up to something. This is not normal data they are going after," he says. "They want to know our capabilities, our surge capacity for a large number of victims at a single time."

The good news is that it appears easy to scare these folks off, Roberts says. At the first sign of confrontation, they leave.