Feds: Beware of 'Obamacare' scams as fraudsters prey on confusion

McClatchy Washington BureauJuly 12, 2013 

— If a stranger claiming to be from the government calls to offer you an “Obamacare card” or threatens to throw you in jail unless you buy insurance, hang up the phone. It’s a scam.

Fraudsters are poised to take advantage of widespread confusion over the Affordable Care Act – also known as Obamacare – to steal Americans’ credit cards, Social Security numbers and other personal information, consumer advocates and government officials say.

“This is the huge, new government program. There’s no doubt in my mind that the fraudsters view it as an opportunity to rip people off,” said Lois Greisman, associate director for the Federal Trade Commission’s division of marketing practices.

The FTC already has issued a consumer alert about one telemarketing scheme, in which impostors claiming to be from Medicare told consumers they needed to hand over their personal or financial information in order to continue eligibility because “change is on the horizon.”

But nothing in the Affordable Care Act threatens existing benefits for Medicare enrollees, Greisman said. The official-sounding calls were just a ploy to steal consumers’ identities and money.

The FTC received more than 1,100 complaints about similar scams in May alone.

Another typical rip-off involves fraudsters who contact consumers by phone or email and say, “I’m with Obamacare. I need your information to send you your new Obamacare card,” said John Breyault, vice president of public policy for the National Consumers League, an advocacy group in Washington.

The callers request bank account routing numbers, or credit cards, or ask for cash directly through a wire transfer, he said.

“Scammers usually say you have to join. ‘It’s the law now, so you have to give us money,’ ” Breyault said. “It’s typically using scary language like ‘the government requires you to do this’ or ‘you’re going to lose your benefits unless you send us money.’ ”

Consumer groups noticed a spike in complaints about Affordable Care Act swindles after Congress passed the 2010 law. Now, as the Oct. 1 deadline to open health care exchanges approaches, health care scams are on the rise again.

The FTC’s Greisman worries that some scammers will exploit the government’s efforts to better educate consumers by pretending to be certified “navigators.” The administration has announced $54 million in grants for navigator groups, which will be tasked by law to help uninsured Americans sign up for benefits in the exchanges.

All navigators must be impartial, certified and trained, said Richard Olague, spokesman for the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Some states may require fingerprinting or background checks, Olague said.

“What we’re very likely to see is (fake navigators saying), ‘For an upfront fee we can help you,’ but there shouldn’t be an upfront fee. It should be free,” Greisman said.

She said her agency had been waiting for the Department of Health and Human Services to finalize rules for the navigators before advising consumers on how best to distinguish real navigators from fake ones. The agency announced Friday that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services had finalized a 145-page regulation that outlines standards for navigators.

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