Editor's note: The scam website that hijacked a Department of Public Health url appears to have been taken down after this story published. As of Saturday evening, SFHIV.org leads to a page featuring a cartoon pig with a hat on his head and the Earth in his hooves over a message that says "sfhiv.org has been registered at Porkbun but the owner has not put up a site yet. Visit again soon to see what amazing website they decide to build."
San Francisco’s drug crisis is on pace to claim more lives this year than any on record, and many people are turning to the city’s Department of Public Health for answers.
But in an embarrassing example of how the $3.2 billion agency has failed to monitor its own shop, a search of the department’s website using terms like “drugs,” “detox” and “HIV” directs people to a scam website that uses the official city seal to shill fertility pills and dicey detox solutions to beat drug tests.
According to the Wayback Machine, which archives the internet, SFHIV.org was the city’s official repository for information related to HIV prevention in San Francisco from late 2004 until 2021. The city-owned website included everything from research studies and HIV epidemiology reports to explainers on safe sex practices and documents from the HIV Prevention Planning Council, a regional entity made up of government appointees and community stakeholders.
However, it appears the health department did not re-register ownership of the site in 2021 and someone in Kyiv, Ukraine, scooped it up that February, according to the GoDaddy website registry.
This unknown person restored the site to look like an official health department resource but waited until the beginning of 2022 to add tabs to sell an array of products, as pages archived in the Wayback Machine indicate. The website now sells synthetic urine and detox kits that claim to help people pass drug tests, as well as pills to increase sperm count and help men “ejaculate up to 500% more.”
Thousands of websites—including the federally funded Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the national news outlet NPR—continue to link to the fake website, according to Moz, a backlink checker.
“It’s dangerous because it’s masquerading as a city-owned and -operated website, but it is definitely not,” said Michael Scarce, an HIV-positive health activist and writer in San Francisco who came across the website while doing research.
More worrisome to Scarce and others is how the website—despite a legal disclaimer noting that “content on the website is solely intended for general use”—continues to promote itself as an official resource for people with HIV and AIDS.
“The science of HIV has been accelerating for the past couple of years, so if something is four years out of date, that can be really dangerous when people see it as an authoritative source for reliable information about their health,” Scarce said.
Dr. Bernie Garrett, a scientist at the University of British Columbia and author of a book on deceptive health marketing, said that internet-based health scams have exploded in recent years because they’re profitable and relatively easy to execute.
“This one looks like an example of an expired domain spoof: Businesses let go of their old domain, and someone picks it up and spoofs the original owner, then using it for dubious purposes,” Garrett said. “It's a huge growth area to market useless supplements or to get people’s credit card information.”
The scams are difficult to stamp out because web hosts can claim they’re not responsible for the content they’re hosting, even if it’s deceptive, Garrett said. The websites can often ignore any takedown requests that come their way.
Supervisor Matt Dorsey, who is HIV positive, called the website a “cautionary example” of what happens when city departments create new web domains.
“If these kinds of domains lapse into dormancy, they can be taken over by nefarious operators, and that appears to be what happened here,” Dorsey said. “This looks like a city-sanctioned website that provides information about HIV/AIDS programs and services, but it’s instead promoting commercial products to, among other things, help active drug users beat drug tests.”
Dorsey said he is confident the City Attorney’s Office would view the activity “quite unfavorably” and take action to have the website shut down.
The Department of Public Health did not respond to a request for comment Friday. It delivers services via public hospitals and clinics and via nonprofit partners across the city. Despite receiving kudos for its handling of the Covid pandemic, the department, which has 7,500 employees, has been criticized more recently for its handling of the drug crisis and other issues.
Last December, The Standard reported that one of the agency’s top officials was making a second six-figure salary moonlighting for a nonprofit that was on the brink of collapsing despite receiving city contracts. In total, 300 health department employees were found to be breaking city rules by working side-hustle jobs without approval.
On Friday, Supervisor Aaron Peskin expressed surprise to hear of a former health department website being used as a scam. He said it is “imperative to shut this thing down.”
“I’ve encountered almost everything under the sun,” Peskin added, “but this is a new one.”
As of Friday afternoon, the health department’s website continued to link to the imposter website. The author of the website did not respond to emailed questions.