A phony dermatologist misdiagnosed patients and stuck them with needles. It took four years for the medical board to figure it out.
Authored By Ashley Harrell
They were on a family vacation in Los Angeles when Dr. Syed called with the test results. Priyanka P. was just 13 then, and had suffered for several years with the itchy, chronic skin rash that comes with eczema. But on this day — July 18, 2006 —the doctor had found something else in the girl's skin: traces of scabies and melanoma.
Scabies is a contagious skin disease caused by mites. Melanoma is the most deadly type of skin cancer.
Distraught, Priyanka's parents, Harish S. and Sarita P., cut short their vacation, got in their car, and headed for the doctor's home in San Francisco. Surely there had to be something he could do for the girl.
The family's nightmare had begun a week earlier, when Priyanka's parents accompanied her to an appointment with Dr. Timothy Syed Andersson.
"Dr. Syed," as everybody called him, had been recommended to them by a family friend. He had apparently been a professor at UCSF and Stanford, spoken at dermatology conferences, invented a green tea facial cream, and treated movie stars like Julia Roberts and Elizabeth Hurley.
On a visit to his Lakeside District home at 56 Springfield Dr., Priyanka's family was impressed by a wall of photographs showing the doctor posing alongside famous Bollywood actresses.
They followed Syed into his basement office and consulting room. He stuck a piece of tape on Priyanka's skin, peeled it off, and placed it in a plastic bag. He also swabbed the inside of her mouth, and took photos of her face, arms, and legs. He told the family that the images and DNA samples would be sent to a Stanford University imaging center for testing. In addition, Syed gave the girl a customized topical skin cream, for which he charged the family $520.
Cream wasn't all Priyanka would need.
A week later, her results arrived. According to a letter from the imaging center, the images and DNA strip had shown "serious symptoms" of "sub-acute to chronic nummular eczematous inflammation, seborrheic dermatitis, prurigo nodularis, with deep folliculitis, paraneoplastic pemphigus, and melanoma with traces of scabies."
The impenetrable letter was signed by Michael J. Palfskey, M.D., director of Stanford's Digital Image Scanning Center.
Not to worry, Syed told the family. He would be able to treat Priyanka with injections of what he called Interferon-alpha. He could give her the first shot right away, which would cost $1,320. She would need to come back for two more injections, which also cost $1,320 each.
Desperate to help their daughter, the family agreed.
Each time the girl received an injection, she complained of a severe burning sensation that lasted several days. Although Syed told Priyanka's parents that her skin problems would be gone within six months, after five months her condition had only deteriorated.
That's when the family decided to go for a second opinion at UC Davis Medical Center. In April 2007, after more than 10 months of believing their daughter had cancer, they received another set of test results. Priyanka suffered only from eczema.
Just recently, the family learned that nearly everything Syed had told them was a lie. Roberts and Hurley were never his patients. He had never been a professor at UCSF or Stanford, and he had never sent Priyanka's samples anywhere, because that lab at Stanford didn't exist, and Palfskey was a figment of Syed's imagination. And Syed wasn't even a real doctor.
Priyanka and her family weren't the only ones fooled. Dozens of vulnerable members of the South Indian immigrant community were treated by Syed, incorrectly diagnosed with cancer and other diseases, and given dangerous and improper treatments, according to the San Francisco District Attorney's arrest warrant affidavit.
Then there were the people who really should have known better.
Syed bamboozled many in his personal and professional life, including doctors, lawyers, professors, business partners, university admissions staff, and even the United States Information Agency, a now-defunct federal department that issued him a visiting scholar visa. In early 2007, Syed even duped a Medical Board of California (MBC) investigator initially assigned to his case, raising questions about the board's ability to protect the public from phony doctors.
Syed's deception spree came to an end in February, nearly four years after he had been brought to the attention of the MBC, when he was finally arrested and jailed. He refused to talk to SF Weekly for this article. But his former friends, victims, and one of his ex-wives (he has four) have plenty to say, as do the hundreds of pages of investigative documents in the D.A.'s file. They tell the story of a man whose genius wasn't for medicine but for fraud.
The man now calling himself Timothy Syed Andersson used to say his name was Tanweer Syed Ahmad. Sometimes he used a variation of that — Tanweer Syed — or flipped it to Syed Tanweer Ahmad or Syed Tanweer. At times he also went with a middle initial, as in Syed T. Ahmad or Tanweer A. Syed. Most people called him Dr. Syed, or simply Tim.
Syed had about as many names as he did stories regarding his education. He made frequent claims about earning various advanced degrees from universities all over the world — University of the Punjab, Pakistan; University of Tehran, Iran; University of Birmingham, England; and Lund University, Sweden.
Not one of those schools has any record of him, according to an investigation conducted by Jennifer Alderete, a special agent with the Department of Homeland Security.
Only once has Syed been questioned about his background under oath. That was in 2005, in a civil case involving thousands of dollars Syed allegedly stole from a friend, Nitin Shah. (Although the judge found in Shah's favor, Shah has yet to see a dime, and Syed is currently countersuing Shah.)
"I will tell the truth, the whole truth, so help me God," Syed told the court. He said he was born on January 22, 1944, in Karachi, and attended high school there. He earned a Ph.D. in chemistry and an M.D. from the University of Tehran, he said, completing the latter in 1970. Shah's attorney, Michael Heath, asked whether Syed had practiced medicine in Iran.
"Yes, of course," Syed said. "Dermatologist. Trained dermatologist ... I am well-known internationally. ... I am well-known with the Hollywood celebrities, okay?"
According to investigative documents, in February 1995 the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill accepted Ahmad Syed Tanweer as a researcher. In September 1996, the United States Information Agency issued a J-1 (visiting scholar) visa to Syed Tanweer Ahmad.
When Alderete subpoenaed Syed's paperwork from the university, she found that some of it was seemingly fraudulent. Other documents she reviewed indicated that, in October 1996, the university had finally figured this out.
"Terminate with cause," says a handwritten note on a document that raised questions about the authenticity of Syed's application.
"Would never work with him again," says another note by Jean C. Hughes, the alternate responsible officer for the university's J-1 Program. "He forged his signature ... and made up a person."
Another letter from Robert Locke, director of UNC's J-1 Program, states that Syed was terminated and that the Information Agency was notified. That document also indicated that the university refused Syed's request for a J-1 transfer to UCSF.
Apparently, Syed wasn't taking no for an answer. In 1996, he moved to Healdsburg, Calif., with his two sons from a former marriage, and began romancing Betty Amann, who was nearly 10 years his senior. "He pursued me like you wouldn't believe," Amann says.
The couple married on Valentine's Day of 1997; Syed and his sons moved into Amann's house. When he wasn't traveling abroad and lecturing at conferences, she remembers, Syed would be up all night on the computer. He'd sleep until about noon, then go to UCSF, supposedly to do lab work.
In his 2005 testimony, Syed said he was a faculty member, and handed Heath a copy of a UCSF badge identifying Tanweer Syed, M.D., as a "Visiting Assoc. Professor Dermatology."
He said he had worked at UCSF for five years, and stopped because the school was taking 65 percent of his earnings from sales of the skin cream he had invented. "But still today I'm helping the university."
According to UCSF spokeswoman Corinna Kaarlela, Syed briefly worked as an unpaid research assistant in the lab of dermatology professor Howard Maibach. When interviewed by investigators, Maibach claimed that Syed "didn't want to work," so he asked him to leave.
Nobody associated with the university could explain how Syed obtained an identification badge.
In 2001, Syed was listed on the American Academy of Dermatology's summer session program as an associate professor at UCSF. In 2002, he was able to obtain a university business card declaring him a UCSF professor.
Bruce Wintroub, the chairman of UCSF's dermatology department, wrote twice to Syed, asking him to stop claiming an affiliation with the university. Syed responded: There had been a "serious discrepancy," he wrote, and he hoped to work with Wintroub in the future.
According to UCSF dermatology professor Raza Aly, Syed was well respected in the department at first. Aly says many of the doctors — including Maibach — were impressed when Syed said he treated celebrities and sold his green-tea skin cream around the world. Aly even gave the cream to his wife.
As they became friends, Syed and Aly hung around together at dermatology functions, went on double dates with their wives, and wrote a scientific paper together. Aly says he once lent Syed $5,000; Syed paid him back eventually.
Syed applied to work part-time in Aly's lab, but Wintroub vetoed the request. "I wanted to hire him," Aly says. "Thank God I didn't."
In May 2005, the university reported Syed to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), but nothing came of it. Then in April 2006 — almost four years before Syed's arrest — UCSF reported him to the Medical Board of California and the AAD for practicing medicine without a license and falsely claiming he was affiliated with the school. "Can't the state of California or the AAD do something about a nonlicensed foreign physician practicing medicine?" wrote Tim Berger, a UCSF professor of clinical dermatology. "At some point the public must be protected from such frauds."
"Have asked our enforcement staff to open an investigation," Dave Thornton, then the executive director of the MBC, responded. "Thanks for the information."
Nearly six months later — on September 29, 2006 — a complaint about Syed landed on the desk of MBC senior investigator Charles McCort. The complaint pertained to Syed's usage of "M.D." after his name on Internet ads and his Web site, Syed Beauty.
In fact, the site promoted Syed as much more than just a doctor. "Syed is a well-known consulting dermatologist, clinician, cosmetic chemist, and Hoffman Distinguished Professor of Alternative Medicine (Sweden)," it said, "with more than 35 years of professional expertise in the field of extracting and synthesizing natural bioactive."
The site also said Syed gave 100 "scientific podium presentations" at national and international medical conferences. By appointment only, the site claimed, he saw patients at his "offices" in London, Paris, Stockholm, Milan, Mumbai, Dubai, Tokyo, and Hong Kong.
Another three months went by before McCort finally paid a visit to Syed at 56 Springfield Dr. — where Priyanka and dozens of others had been receiving diagnoses and injections.
When McCort confronted Syed about practicing medicine, Syed denied it, and said he was not licensed in California.
He explained he had been a visiting associate professor of dermatology at UCSF, and showed McCort his badge. McCort had Syed write a statement admitting he did not have a medical license. To that, Syed added, "I earned an M.D. from Sweden and a Ph.D. in chemistry from U.K. I have more than 60 research publications in medical journals." He signed the statement under penalty of perjury. McCort closed the case for lack of evidence.
In many ways, the Syed case highlights systemic problems within the Medical Board of California that have existed for years.
In 2004, the state Legislature hired a monitor to conduct an independent analysis of the board's disciplinary system. Julianne D'Angelo Fellmeth, the director of the University of San Diego's Center for Public Interest Law, found that processing the average complaint took an unacceptable two and a half years. Numerous causes included fiscal and staffing shortages, lax oversight, and recalcitrant doctors.
The board's most recent annual report shows that statistic has not improved. Over the two and a half years it is still taking the board to deal with complaints, the public is not being protected from potentially dangerous doctors and unlicensed practitioners.
There's also a larger issue specific to unlicensed practitioners. Unlike gross negligence, incompetence, and substance abuse, the unlicensed practice of medicine has not been deemed a priority of the MBC by the state Legislature, perhaps because there are comparatively few complaints about it. That doesn't mean unlicensed doctors don't exist.
Phony doctors primarily operate out of their homes, often targeting immigrants who don't speak English or have health insurance. People from marginalized communities often seek out discreet, affordable care, and may not be aware that they are being treated by an unlicensed doctor.
Those who do find out often don't know where to make a report. Others opt not to because they're ashamed, says Robert Baratz, one of the doctors who runs Quackwatch, a nonprofit Web site that combats medical misbehavior. When nobody complains, nobody investigates.
Even when fake doctors are reported, the investigations frequently go nowhere. Of the 146 complaints the MBC received last year about unlicensed practitioners, only 48 were referred for field investigation, and 23 of those were closed, mainly for lack of evidence. Just nine of the remaining cases were referred to district attorneys for criminal action, and only two have ended in convictions thus far.
The problem is that for fraudulent doctors to be convicted of practicing medicine without a license, investigators have to literally catch them in the act. In July 2000, the MBC came up with Operation Safe Medicine, essentially a sting involving undercover investigators acting as patients.
Although the operation was important in an immigrant-heavy state like California, in 2002 the MBC ran into financial problems and shut it down. The stings were reinstated only in 2009, after Syed had already treated dozens of patients.
Sapna M. first met Syed in 2005, when he came into the Inner Richmond bank where she worked as a branch manager. Syed presented her with a business card, said he was a UCSF doctor and professor, and told Sapna he could cure her varicose veins.
According to the story Sapna told investigators, in June 2006 she visited Syed's home basement "office," whose walls were lined with medical certificates.
Syed told Sapna that he could also perform breast augmentation on her. When she said she was interested, he explained that he would first need photographs of her breasts, but she refused. Instead, Wendy Wong, Syed's fourth wife, took the pictures.
Syed then took Sapna upstairs and instructed her to lie on her stomach on his living room couch for the varicose vein treatment. He told her he couldn't give her a local anesthetic, because if he did, the procedure wouldn't work. He assured her it would be painless.
Syed stuck Sapna's legs between 20 and 25 times with a needle attached to a syringe. After withdrawing her blood, he squirted it into cotton balls. The procedure took about an hour and a half. When it was over, Sapna felt unwell.
That's when Syed offered her a beer, she told investigators.
A month later, Sapna's spider veins were still bothering her. Syed advised her to see a liposuction specialist. The problem, he suggested, was that fat in her legs was messing up the procedure.
Sapna completed a four-page form, "University of California San Francisco Consent from Patient," for a plastic surgeon named John Reichle Jr. to perform her liposuction at UCSF. Syed told Sapna that Reichle would call her to set up an appointment, but she never received a call. Instead, she called UCSF and got some disturbing news. Reichle didn't exist.
Although Sapna says she authorized Syed to charge her only $2,500 for the injections, credit card records show that he billed her a total of $7,000. When her bank contacted Syed about the charges, he denied performing any procedures, and claimed the $7,000 was for cream she had purchased. Sapna then went to another doctor and explained what had happened; the doctor consulted the medical board's Web site and learned that Syed had no medical license.
On September 26, 2006, Sapna filed a police report involving Syed's unlicensed status, the treatments she received, and the fraudulent charges on her credit card. San Francisco police have not responded to SF Weekly's questions about why the medical board was not alerted.
Instead, a year went by, and Syed continued to see patients. During that time, the first medical board investigation (unrelated to Sapna's case) was opened and closed for lack of evidence.
A second, this one concerning Sapna's complaint, began in May 2007. Four months later, investigators had the information they needed to get a search warrant.
On September 13, 2007, investigators entered Syed's home and seized several computers, hard drives, CDs, and numerous chemicals, syringes, and needles. They also discovered 11 binders containing information about Syed's patients.
Syed had documented the conditions his patients supposedly suffered from, but also what they liked to do in their leisure time. He had noted their astrological signs. He had asked his female patients for their bra sizes. He told some that he was conducting a study on STDs, and asked them personal questions about their sex lives.
The investigators tracked down those patients. In interviews, every one said that Syed took photographs of their skin and claimed he would send it to an imaging lab at Stanford. Each received a typed letter signed by Palfskey, diagnosing cancer or serious skin problems. Some of the letters warned patients that their skin problems were spreading, and could eventually affect sensitive areas such as the face or genitals.Unsigned templates of those letters were later discovered in Syed's computer files.
No matter what the issue, Syed recommended his skin cream and injections of "Interferon-alpha." Investigators have been unable to determine what patients actually received, but nearly all of them reported that the shots were excruciating.
After Syed injected one 2-year-old child, his nails began falling out.
One adult male patient admitted he cried because the injections hurt so much.
Some patients went to Syed based on recommendations from friends or relatives. Others heard his advertisements on the radio station Saaz Aur Awaaz, which also has a program on KEST-AM (1450) from 2 to 3 p.m. on Saturdays. The channel bills itself as "The Voice of the South Asian Community." Still more patients had won free consultations from the preschool where their children and Syed's daughter attended. One had been referred by a woman who taught ballet to Syed's daughter.
One of the saddest cases was that of a woman named Wei Ling J., who suffered from rosacea. Over six months in 2006, she allowed Syed to inject her multiple times in her arms and buttocks. Her skin condition only got worse, and she became depressed and suicidal. Too embarrassed to go out in public, she eventually quit her job. She told investigators that when she finally saw another doctor, he said her skin condition was one of the worst he had ever seen. Wei Ling never suspected Syed wasn't a doctor. She says she paid him a total of $15,555.
Of his 27 victims, only a handful reported having doubts. Just one — Elizabeth W. — became confrontational. She wrote to Syed, complaining that he had charged her more than she expected, and challenged him about where he was allegedly sending her DNA tests. "I know the difference between a clinical test and a marketing tool," she wrote.
Syed's response merely reinforced his importance. "I am booked for the next five months," he wrote. "My cliental [sic] includes Julia Roberts, Jaclyn Smith, Hunter Tylo, Sela Ward, Elizabeth Hurley, Mel Gibson, Helen Hunt." Additionally, Syed claimed he had been the "director of operations" for Guerlain, Christian Dior, Max Factor, Helena Rubinstein, and Johnson & Johnson.
Pretending to be a licensed doctor wasn't the only scam Syed was running. He also claimed he could get people into Stanford Law School because he was a professor there.
One family told investigators they gave Syed a check for $5,000 as a donation to the school. They believed the money would help the university overlook the insufficient grades of their daughter, who was also a patient of Syed's.
Syed told them they needed to leave the top line of the donation check blank, because he had yet to determine the appropriate person to accept the money. According to bank records, he decided he was the correct recipient. The girl's application essay — which Syed wrote for her — falsely claimed she had familial ties to the university.
A few weeks later, in early 2005, Syed went back to the girl's parents and told them Stanford required another $5,000. Again, he said, they needed to leave the top line blank. They wrote the check, but their daughter did not get into the law school.
The family told investigators they were extremely embarrassed. In retrospect, it seemed so obvious that they were being taken. But Syed was so good at playing the well-connected, world-famous doctor that it's possible he even had himself convinced.
Without that pathological self-assuredness, it's hard to explain Syed's relentless cream-inventing, paper-writing, podium-presenting, and record-keeping. While he should have been hiding, he was telling everyone he met that he was a world-famous dermatologist.
You might think all of that would make him an easy target for the Medical Board of California. But all that bravado — paired with an international résumé that was hard to verify — seemingly worked in his favor. Few people suspected that somebody would lie so boldly and so often.
In addition to Syed's unyielding confidence and his claims about treating the rich and famous, he looked the part. He cultivated a distinguished appearance, and carried himself in a pleasant, professional manner. Whenever someone of importance approached a table where Syed was sitting, he would stand up as a gesture of respect. "He had excellent bedside and table manners," UCSF dermatologist Aly says.
"Oh my God, the charm," says Amann, Syed's ex-wife. "It was unreal. He made you feel like you were the only person in the world."
Amann says she is now certain he used her for money and housing. She can recall some definite signs that Syed wasn't who claimed to be. One of his sons played soccer, and sprained his ankle during a game. To her surprise, Syed seemed at a loss for what to do. He didn't even know to suggest ice.
"A doctor would know that," she says.
On the morning of Tuesday, Feb. 2, investigators placed Dr. Syed — or whatever his real name was — under arrest.
Syed was charged with 51 felonies: 27 counts of practicing medicine without a license, 23 counts of grand theft by deception, and one count of perjury for lying to the medical board. Of the 27 victims Syed allegedly treated as patients, eight were minors. According to the district attorney's office, he had collected a total of more than $75,000 from the people he had defrauded.
Though Syed should have been stopped years before, his capture was still a proud moment for District Attorney Kamala Harris. She called a special press conference to announce the arrest alongside the medical board investigators. When asked what was in Syed's cream, she triumphantly told reporters: "A bunch of B.S."
There was no mention of the fact that the board had walked away from its first case involving Syed, or that Sapna had filed her police report nearly four years prior. The whole ordeal took so long, D.A. spokesman Brian Buckelew explained, because it was a complex, multiagency, document-intensive, victim-intensive case.
"There are privacy and trust concerns, language and cultural barriers, and multiple medical issues and agencies involved," he said. "Syed made many claims ... requiring a significant, multicountry international investigation in order to prove them false."
Because Syed denied throughout the investigation that he practiced medicine, no precautions were taken to ensure that he was not continuing to do so. Before the raid, there was simply no evidence — other than Sapna's claims — that Syed was treating patients, Buckelew said.
Despite the strikingly similar stories of the people who told investigators they believed Syed was a doctor and paid him to treat them, he has pleaded not guilty. "I think he's been wrongfully accused," says Syed's lawyer, George Lazarus.
Lazarus couldn't answer every question about his "warm and charismatic" client, as he had just recently taken the case. But he did say he believed Syed had a medical degree from the University of Tehran. He also pointed out that Syed had been a medical researcher who had published articles and lectured domestically and abroad.
Then there's the cream. "Customers of his are very upset at the fact that they're not able to get his cream at this point," Lazarus says.
That much is true. One woman who spoke on the condition of anonymity, who helped Syed advertise on Saaz Aur Awaaz, says the cream was the best she ever had. "It made the skin supple. It felt like I didn't need makeup," she says. "Believe me, if you tried that cream, you would love it, too."
Syed's arrest and exposure has left those who trusted him baffled at just how deep his deception went. Did he, they wonder, have any scientific or medical training at all?
During its investigation, the district attorney's office called upon a real doctor, Maryam Asgari, to review Syed's 22 published papers and his evaluations of his patients. She was highly skeptical of the papers and his patient records. In many cases, she wrote that Syed had deviated far from standard practices. But in other instances, she acknowledged, he seemingly performed commonly accepted treatments.
Aly, who had engaged in numerous scientific conversations with Syed, continues to believe his former friend could not have been an outright fraud. "No doubt about it," Aly said. "His science background was solid."
Article Source: SFWEEKLY