The scammers called from a blocked number, claiming to be from a government agency. They already had the person’s name and Cape Coral address. They just needed a Social Security number. So they could send out a new Medicare card, they said, reflecting changes to the program under the Affordable Care Act.
The game didn’t work that time. The senior reported the call to Florida’s Attorney General’s Office. But increasingly, scammers are preying on confusion about the health care law to steal identities or gain direct access to a bank account.
This scheme is beginning to succeed in Florida, which leads the nation in both total fraud and total identify theft cases. Last year, there were 83,000 cases of what the government calls impostor fraud. With 5,700 cases, Florida ranked second only to California.
“We know the scammers love to pick a tidbit from whatever is current in the news and then twist it to their own ends,” said Sally Hurme, an elder law attorney with AARP.
“Obviously, people who are on Medicare are interested in information about Medicare. When somebody calls and says they’re from Medicare or they have information about Medicare, they’re very inclined to stay on the phone.”
The Federal Trade Commission, the nation’s consumer protection agency, said phones began ringing as soon as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that the sweeping health care law was constitutional.
“If someone who claims to be from the government calls and asks for your personal information, hang up. It’s a scam,” said FTC Spokesman Frank Dorman. “The government and legitimate organizations you do business with already have the information they need and will not ask you for it.”
Scammers are taking advantage of widespread confusion about the law. In April, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that four in 10 Americans were unaware that the Affordable Care Act was the law of the land and that it was being implemented. Forty-nine percent said they do not have enough information about the law to understand how it will affect their family.
That information gap is becoming a greater source of concern as the federal government tries to mobilize millions of Americans to sign up for insurance starting in October through an online marketplace.
In the meantime, criminals capitalize on the lack of understanding. They tend to target seniors who are more likely to be home to answer their phones, and because they often have a steady income in the form of Social Security.
Scammers focus on the Medicare card itself because a senior’s Social Security number is also his Medicare card number.
“It’s obviously the key to plain old ordinarily identify theft, but it’s also the key to health insurance fraud or Medicare fraud,” Hurme said. “If you have the Medicare number and somebody’s name, then you can falsely bill Medicare.”
That same information is all one needs to steal a tax refund. There has been a explosion of that kind of fraud in Florida.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., recently held a hearing on that issue as chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging. At the hearing, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine suggested making it harder for criminals to steal identities.
“An issue also that we need to look at is the use of the Social Security number on Medicare cards that are then available to all sorts of health-care providers,” she said. “I know that for years we’ve been told it’s too expensive to convert, but certainly from hence forward we could stop using the Social Security number on Medicare cards.”
Fraudsters are experts at taking advantage of a moment. As Superstorm Sandy was on its way, some began calling seniors on the East Coast, offering them a waterproof Medicare card. The catch was that it would cost $40. Scammers asked for bank routing numbers to complete the transaction.
The scam would be a perfect fit as hurricane season approaches, Hurme said.
Whatever the scam, “you can almost guarantee that half of them are going to come from Florida,” Hurme said.
“Of course they prey on Florida citizens, but they use Florida as their home base to go around the country.”
Report suspicious calls
If you get a suspicious call, report it to the Federal Trade Commission. The phone number on your caller ID – if there is one – or the name or location of the caller – is helpful information to investigators and professional fraud fighters. You can report it online at https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/ or on the phone, toll-free, at 1-877-FTC-HELP. Your report might help stop the scammers, and it could help keep others from being scammed.
Source: Federal Trade Commission