In early May 2020, a letter attributed to California’s Department of Social Services circulated on Facebook. It purportedly mandated that recipients of programs like MediCal and CalFresh immediately submit to testing for COVID-19 antigens or antibodies — or lose their benefits. Further, the letter stated that if recipients tested positive, any children in the household would be taken away and placed in temporary foster care:
Many different iterations of the COVID-19 testing letter attributed to California’s Department of Social Services appeared on Facebook — and while they were cropped differently, all iterations were redacted in an identical fashion. It read:
As a participant in state assistance benefits, including cash aid, Cal Fresh, and MediCal, and in accordance with The State of California Emergency Order Numbers 3.21.20-EO-N-35-20 and N-25-20, you are being informed that COVID-19 testing is declared mandatory for all members of your household receiving assistance.
You may receive the test free of charge [at] any of the participating sites in Merced County, California. Please refer to the attached pamphlet for testing sites and information related to COVID-19 testing. Appointments are required for testing. You can register online [link] or by calling 1 (888) 634-1123. Tests will be performed Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Failure to obtain a test by June 1, 2020, will result in the temp0rary suspension of your benefits beginning July 1, 2020, and continue until such time that testing is c0mpleted. In addition, should you test p0sitive for COVID-19, and in c0mpliance with the State of California Welfare and Institutions Code, The Humans [sic] Services Agency of Merced County may deem it necessary to remove all children (under the age of 18) from your household who have tested negative, and place them in temporary foster care until such time that you have been determined to be recovered.
Please feel free to contact your case worker, [redacted] with any questions you have regarding this notice.
As we transcribed the letter, we noticed several odd turns of phrase, as well as word omissions and other minor errors (misrendering “CalFresh” as “Cal Fresh,” for example) — not the sort of sloppiness you might expect to see in such volume in official correspondence. Further, it was likely that a letter such as the one seen above — dated May 6 2020 — would attract considerable attention and outcry.
However, copies of the letter did not vary in their redactions, suggesting that just one copy was circulating via many individual social media users. Any variations were in the form of additions to the version seen above, or external photographs taken of the image on a computer screen:
A reverse image search showed that a copy of the letter was uploaded before May 10 2020 to 4chan’s /pol/, but it was unclear if the letter originated on that site, which is known for its users’ frequent hoaxes and attempts to bamboozle the media.
Whatever its source, the letter was definitively a cruel prank and not a legitimate message from the state. On May 10 2020, the California Department of Social Services issued a notice about the hoax:
The California Department of Social Services (CDSS) has become aware of a fake letter containing references to Merced County Human Services Agency that is circulating on social media.
If you have info about the source of the letter, please contact CDSS at (916) 651-8848 or [email protected].
An appended link led to a longer explanation, referenced the domain mentioned in the hoax letter (lhi.care) and stated, in part:
Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Information
Beware of Fake Letter
We have become aware of a fake letter containing references to Merced County Human Services Agency that is circulating on social media. It includes the faked signature of a state official. The letter tells clients they must get tested for COVID-19 in order to continue their benefits. It also tells clients that if they test positive, their children will be removed into foster care. The letter asks people to visit a website, as well. The letter, its contents, and the website are fake.
We have alerted the appropriate county authorities for investigation. If you receive this letter, please disregard it. State departments and county human services departments NEVER will ask about your health status in connection to an application for benefits. Similarly, children must be subject to abuse or neglect to enter foster care. Children cannot be put into foster care just because a parent may be ill.
If you have helpful information about the source of the letter, or if anyone has questions or concerns about the authenticity of materials from the Department, please contact us at: (916) 651-8848 or [email protected]. We would appreciate your assistance in protecting Californians during this difficult time.
Many readers were understandably alarmed by an official looking letter, purportedly from the California Department of Social Services, demanding recipients of assistance be tested for COVID-19 under threat of losing their benefits or their children. California’s Department of Social Services quickly addressed the hoax and asked for help in identifying its creators. None of the claims were true, and the letter represented a form of corrosive disinformation intended to sow still more fear during a period of national crisis.