More than 200,000 people seek addiction treatment on the phone or online every month. Few of them realize that their pleas for help are a valuable commodity — one that is quietly fought over by those angling to turn a distress signal into cash.
Addicts represent big money to treatment centers, which are happy to pay a middleman $50 for a "lead" on a patient who might generate $40,000 or more in insurance claims in a matter of months. That is why television ads offering help to addicts air constantly nationwide.
But lead generators, or lead gens, aren't necessarily the ideal path to rehab clinics — as Dr. Alan Goodwin, an inquisitive psychologist in Palm Beach, Fla., accidentally discovered earlier this year. That discovery led him on a monthslong personal mission to try to understand the ethically murky business of customer acquisition in the treatment world.
It started when Dr. Goodwin, who works as an education and health care consultant, phoned a local substance abuse awareness coalition with a question about the format of a presentation he was to make. Instead of the organization, he got a recording saying the number had been disconnected — but before he could hang up, the message continued.
"We can help you find an alternative addiction specialist," the recording said, according to Dr. Goodwin. "Please stay on the line while we look."
The medical group's phone number, he quickly realized, had been hijacked by a drug-treatment referral service.