It’s open enrollment season for health insurance, which means it’s also prime time for scammers looking to prey on people trying to find affordable medical coverage, prescription plans, and the like.
This year, both Medicare and the Affordable Care Act have given scammers new scripts and scare tactics to peddle. Here are one to beware.
Bogus bureaucrats: Since the Affordable Care Act is still relatively recent and can be complicated to understand, scammers can take advantage of people by calling and posing as official helpers or government liaisons. Hang up the phone. Real professionals "don’t call you, they work at charities and community groups to help people choose plans,” says Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for the advocacy group Consumer Action. And even if you did get a legitimate call, nobody from any ACA assistance program should ever ask you for money.
Website hijinks: If you’re using the ACA website, make sure you have the right address. Scammers have been known to create similar-looking sites with URLs that closely resemble the real deal. “Redirection scams [go] to websites that look like Healthcare.gov, where they hope people will provide info about themselves on ‘applications,’” Sherry says. In reality, they’re trying to part you from your money or harvest personal information to commit identity theft.
To be safe, check that the URL begins with https, not just http, Sherry says. The extra “s” means it’s a secure site. And be careful if you use a search engine: “If you Google healthcare.gov, be prepared for it to be a few down in the list of results, as sponsored ads are on top.”
Dodgy discount deals: A related issue to watch out for is ads touting health “discount plans,” the FTC warns. Such plans are often pitched as a way to save big bucks on your healthcare costs. They aren’t necessarily scams, per se, but they're not really insurance either, and what you’re paying for might be of minimal or no use.
“With a medical discount plan, you generally pay a monthly fee to get discounts on specific services or products from a list of participating providers,” the agency explains. It might sound like you’re getting a deal, but it’s really important to read the fine print: The actual discounts might not be as big as advertised, and doctors you visit or products you need might not be included. Even if a plan or its representative assures you that your doctor participates, call to make sure.
Medicare card-shuffling: For seniors, this is the prime season for Medicare cons. “They dramatically spike in the weeks leading up to and through the annual window for participants to make changes to their health and prescription coverage,” AARP warns on its website. The rollout of new Medicare cards that don’t have the cardholder’s Social Security number on them—a feature designed to protect seniors from identity theft—has, ironically, created new openings for would-be scammers, warns Sid Kirchheimer, a healthcare expert with the AARP.
“Fraudsters claim in phone calls or unexpected home visits that new cards are being issued and that, for you to continue to receive your benefits, the agency must ‘verify’ or ‘update’ identifying information,” he cautions in an AARP blog post. That isn’t true, of course; the switch is being implemented gradually, and, Kirchheimer says, current Medicare recipients won’t get new cards until at least five years from now.