Inside the Shady World of DNA Testing Companies

Evan V. Symon, Cracked, December 4, 2017

Should you drunkenly celebrate St. Patrick’s Day or Oktoberfest? Can you brag about your ancestors having first-class seats on the Mayflower? Do you need to feel extra, extra bad about slavery? All these questions and more can be answered by sending a vial of your spit off to a company like Ancestry.com, 23andMe, or Living DNA … in theory. But the reality of those businesses is a lot less science, and a lot more hustle. We talked with Morgan, who works for one of the major ancestry testing companies. He had some interesting things to say …

6 The Tests Aren’t As Accurate As They’re Claimed To Be

DNA is one of the most aggressively scientific acronyms in the English language. Look at this test results page!

But when Inside Edition had a set of triplets send their spit in to Ancestry.com and 23andMe, they got wildly different results from both services. Neither gave each triplet the same ancestry results — which, considering they all came from the same womb, is pretty weird.

“Tests can be a crapshoot. For DNA tests, they use genetic markers, which are little variations in the DNA one or several groups may have, but others do not. The more markers there are, the more accurate the test will be.”

Some companies may use 12, 37, or 67, while others claim to use more than 700,000 different markers. Any of those numbers can sound impressive with the right marketing spin behind them, but the simple fact of the matter is that nobody’s method is perfect. “The best we can do is give a certain range based on those markers (or show who they are most similar to), and sometimes we’ll move up a percentage point of an ethnic group if it doesn’t add up to 100 percent.”

Inside Edition found differences of over 10 percent between the triplets they tested. That is not a small gap. If you were off by 10 percent on a DNA test, you could technically be a mouse. Maybe it’s unreasonable to expect perfect accuracy from saliva you mailed to a lab. But a lot of people do anyway, and Morgan winds up dealing with their complaints.

“At least once a week, we’ll get a call from somebody who took two or three other tests and then ours, and complains about how different they are. Usually it’s 5-20 percent off, but we got an email from a guy showing how in one test he was 7 percent Irish, Scottish, and Welsh, then on another he was 33 percent, and then on ours 45 percent, and he wanted to know what was wrong with everyone. We wrote to him that each test is different because of the number and types of genetic markers used, which can skew data, but he wrote back and said that we were con men.”

Genetics experts from the University of Texas and the University of North Carolina have gone so far as to say that these companies are preying on people, because they don’t truly have the information they need to pinpoint your origins on a map, and that it’s not possible to trace unique ancestry that way. As they put it, “That’s the beauty of this scam. The companies aren’t scamming you. They’re not giving you fraudulent information. They are giving you data, real data, and allowing you to scam yourself.”

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5 They Might Tweak Results to Avoid Pissing People Off

Morgan admitted to having changed people’s results. “We only did this on rare occasions, when we knew they weren’t using it as means to harm someone.” A lot of this is done under the guise of having the tests line up with what the business already knows of the customer’s expectations. It’s easier to do that than to deal with an endless parade of clients who are intensely pissed off because they aren’t as Dutch as they expected to be.

“{snip} It pays to suck up to the people who pay you.

“One woman sent the packet out with green shamrocks and a green leprechaun hat on it. She was really proud to be Irish. She even said she was excited to see if she was 100 percent Irish. But the test found no Irish blood. It was half Eastern Europe, then a mix of different places in Germany and Italy, and even Greece.” Clearly, this woman’s family had either lied to her, been lied to themselves, or she was one of those stealth adoptions that happen every so often. “The consensus was that she would send a huge fit if she was shown not to be Irish at all, so we made her 20 percent Irish and highlighted our disclaimer about results not being accurate.” Or they could have put down “100 percent” on St. Patrick’s Day and still technically be right.

{snip}

It’s not unheard of for genetic tests to be altered. New York crime lab workers have sued the police for forcing them to change or ignore results, and The New York Times found that anything related to DNA, from Ancestry results to crime scenes, can be fabricated easily. North Korea disavows that Kim Jong-Un is a quarter Japanese, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary. So Morgan and his co-workers aren’t even close to alone in their little DNA-based white lies.

4 It’s Really Easy to Mess Up the Tests

There are a lot of ways to get DNA: blood, semen, bloody semen, etc. But Morgan’s company, and most of the industry, prefers to use spit. “We use saliva for our test. You get this vial in a packet we send, and after washing out your mouth with Listerine to kill all germs, you spit.” (If it’s just chewing tobacco spit, they’ll mark you down as “Alabaman” and leave it at that.)

{snip}

Another thing that complicates DNA test results: interracial lovemaking. “Sometimes the saliva looks good and we test it, but then the results show something really messed up. We had a few tests where the genetic markers where everywhere, on five continents. It’s really rare for that to happen. The percentage points were 10 percent in India, 10 percent in China, 5 percent Native American, 10 percent Sub-Saharan Africa, 20 percent Scandinavia-Norway. You can imagine. I called [some of these customers], I explained what the situation was and went down the results, and what always happened was that they would say yes to half, and no to the other half of the ancestry they knew. When we asked if they knew anyone who fit the other ancestry results, they would say, ‘Oh, my husband/wife/fiancee/boyfriend/girlfriend is!'”

{snip}

3 They Will Screw With Racists

“I only know of two times somebody wanted to be tested for being another ethnicity because they didn’t like that ethnicity. Both times, [they were] white people not wanting to believe they had black ancestors.” The first of these made an offhand remark that, “‘I’m hoping it will show people I’m not black.’ And not as a joke. He was serious.” The second customer was even less subtle: “He caught himself from saying the N-bomb. He said, ‘I want to know if any of my family are ni- black.'”

Morgan and his colleagues were caught between a rock and a really-want-to-mess-with-racists place. It would’ve been fun to throw a “10 percent West African” in there, but then they might have a pissed-off, dangerous person at their office, waving a gun. “Since we couldn’t do anything to the results (and we wanted to), what we did was add ‘< 1 percent’ to each African category of ethnicity. That way we weren’t lying, and they would both be wondering how much under a percentage point was. We always try to round to the nearest number because we sometimes hear about percentage points, but for them, we leave it open to whether it’s a one or a zero.”

It’s a compromise that’s elegant in its passive-aggressive simplicity. And it got a result. “The near-N-bomber wrote to us asking what that meant, and we wrote back that it meant it was under 1 percent. And we were not saying zero. Unless they got another test, that was going to bother them. Maybe they weren’t 100 percent Caucasian. I mean, they were, according to the results, but this way it leaves it open, and they’ll always be wondering.”

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2 They Uncover Hidden Family Secrets

Genetic ancestry tests have caused a lot of problems, from cops being treated differently when they suddenly learn they’re of mixed race to happy marriages ending when a test reveals hidden infidelities. So Morgan gets lots and lots of calls.

“The number one reason they call us after they get their results back is to contest something that exposed a family secret. Sometimes it was a parent not really being their parent, or an orphan who didn’t know their history now finding out that they were half Native American this entire time and needing someone to talk to.” Obviously, that kind of news would be shocking for anyone. But sometimes it goes well beyond mere shock.

{snip}

DNA testing has apparently been a real nightmare for parents who casually lie to their children. “A man who also found out he was adopted called us to say that he and his parents were now no longer on speaking terms. Everything had been fine until he took the test. His family was 100 percent Scots-Irish, and the tests showed him as 100 percent Eastern European. His family had never told him, and he made it until his 20s before finding out. There had been some big blowout, and he told me, ‘Your company ruined my entire life. I don’t even know who I am anymore,’ and he started crying. We didn’t ruin the relationship with his family, but I concede we probably provided the spark for it.”

{snip}

1 People Demand They Forge Their Results

“You would think there would be a lot of racists wanting black ancestry changed, but except for maybe two incidents, it hasn’t happened. Most white people who found out that they’re part black or part Native American have been quite accepting, if not a little excited. And black people who found out they’re part white have been the same way. It’s the sub-areas or implied ancestry that make people mad enough to call us.” Oddly enough, “most of our calls have been from people wanting to be changed from Italian.”

{snip}

It all comes down to pride, and the unfortunate fact that race matters a lot more to most people than they’re willing to admit. There are millions of folks out there who’d never argue one race is superior to another, but who’d fight you to the death if you dared to suggest they were German instead of Scottish. {snip}

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