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Brace for new wave of health-care scams

Oct. 1 signals start date for enrollment in health insurance exchanges

There’s nothing new about scam artists using the Affordable Care Act as a ruse to con you into divulging sensitive personal or financial information.

That’s been going on ever since Congress passed the landmark health-care law in the spring of 2010.

But consumer advocates are warning that it’s only going to get worse now that millions of uninsured Americans and small businesses can begin enrolling Oct. 1 for health-care coverage through their federal- or state-run health insurance exchanges.

“We definitely do expect to see an increase … I fully anticipate there will be scammers out there to take advantage of the situation,” says Rebecca Branch, deputy director of the New Mexico Consumer Protection Division in the Attorney General’s Office.

Consider these reports from around the country:

  • In Maryland, consumers are receiving phone calls claiming that they must verify their Medicare ID and Social Security numbers in conjunction with the new law. They don’t have to do any such thing.
  • In Florida and New York, scammers are going door to door in search of individuals who don’t have health insurance, then pressuring them into signing up for insurance coverage under the threat of imprisonment. While the law does contain penalties for those who don’t buy insurance, spending time behind bars isn’t one of them.
  • And fake health exchanges have sprung up in other states to lure unsuspecting individuals into buying bogus health insurance or divulging sensitive personal information.

Unfortunately, scammers have two things on their side: the complexity of the law and the public’s general lack of knowledge about it and its numerous provisions.

To that second point, an August poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that roughly half of all Americans (51 percent) don’t understand how the law will affect them and their families – pretty much the same finding as when the law first was enacted three years ago.

Perhaps more troubling, nearly the same percentage of those polled (44 percent) couldn’t say with any certainty whether the law still was on the books. Thirty-one percent didn’t know, 8 percent thought it had been repealed by Congress and 5 percent thought it had been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

This lack of clarity gives scammers the upper hand when trying to trick you into divulging information so they can steal your identity, charge purchases to your credit cards, open bank accounts in your name and other assorted mischief.

To combat that advantage, the New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange recently entered into a $7 million contract with a Milwaukee-based public relations firm to educate the public on how the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance exchanges are expected to work.

The money was part of an $18.6 million federal grant that’s intended to fund outreach, education and marketing efforts in collaboration with businesses, health-care providers, nonprofit organizations, schools and universities, and others.

The hope is that the more people know about how the law will work, the less susceptible they will be to anyone trying to take advantage of them.

“The point is to get the information out there so people do know the answers to the questions,” Branch says.

In the meantime, here are some tips from the Better Business Bureau in case you find yourself on the receiving end of one of these health-care law scams:

HANG UP: The more you talk, the better the odds of the caller convincing you to say something you will later regret.

Never disclose personal information : That includes your date of birth and your bank account, credit-card and Social Security numbers.

DON’T DEPEND ON CALLER ID: Sophisticated scam operations are able to display a bogus company name or number on your caller ID screen.

BE INFORMED: The more you know, the less likely you will be tricked into giving out sensitive information. The U.S. Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ website – HealthCare.gov – is a good place to start.

SEEK HELP: If you are conned into giving out personal information, immediately contact your bank, credit-card providers and the three major credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

WARN OTHERS: Older family members are prime targets for health care-related scams, so caution them to be on their guard against these fraudulent calls or emails.

One final thing to keep in mind, courtesy of the Federal Trade Commission: If someone who claims to be with the government calls and says they need you to confirm or disclose personal information, it’s no doubt a scam. The government already has that information.

Nick Pappas is assistant business editor at the Albuquerque Journal. Contact him at npappas@abqjournal.com, 505-823-3847 or on Twitter at @nickpapp if you are aware of what sounds like a scam. To report a scam to law enforcement, contact the New Mexico Consumer Protection Division toll-free at 1-800-678-1508.

 

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