The Times West Virginian

December 9, 2012

Medicare fraud scheme: Beware of phone calls

By Jessica Borders
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — Consumers should always “err on the side of caution” in order to prevent becoming victims of scams — like the Medicare fraud scheme that is currently circulating.

The Better Business Bureau, serving the Canton, Ohio, region and most of West Virginia, knew there was a problem after hearing from multiple people that they were getting telephone calls about Medicare that didn’t seem quite right.

As the deadline for open enrollment or changes to Medicare coverage was coming to an end, scammers knew that this was the period of time when people needed to make decisions, said Judy Strawderman, West Virginia director of community relations for the Better Business Bureau.

She said Medicare providers send materials in the mail so individuals can make those decisions. Many seniors don’t realize that providers won’t be soliciting on the phone.

“If somebody is calling them on the phone, I can pretty much guarantee it’s going to be a scam,” Strawderman said.

Scammers call seniors and act as if they’re trying to get them to sign up for the program, but they’re really attempting to steal their credit card, bank account or Social Security numbers, she said. They tell senior citizens that they must provide their information in order to secure their coverage.

“They’re extremely savvy,” Strawderman said of the crooks. “No senior wants to lose their benefits.”

She said the scam artists are often very low key and say they want to help the individual by confirming their information.

A consumer should never provide those important numbers to someone who is calling them for the first time. As soon as those Social Security numbers are obtained, the potential for identity theft is huge, Strawderman said.

“It’s a phishing expedition,” she said. “The longer you talk with somebody, the more your guard goes down.”

Many times, people become comfortable and don’t take the extra time to make sure the person who is calling them is legitimate. In the past, a person’s handshake or their word really meant something, and it’s hard for many seniors to move away from the idea, Strawderman said.

“They’re not used to people going after their information in a means that’s going to harm them,” she said. “Quite often the seniors are isolated, and it’s somebody they can talk to on the phone, not even realizing how much information they provided to a total stranger.”

Assistant Attorney General Matthew Stonestreet added that when these fraudsters claim to be from the government, people assume that they can trust them.

“What’s common in these phishing scams, they’ll pretend to be a trusted entity,” he said.

Consumers should remember that those trusted entities, like the government, already have the Social Security numbers and private information for individuals and won’t be calling to ask for it, Stonestreet said.

Scammers were calling people saying that the Affordable Care Act has new legal implications and there was going be a fee for Medicare cards, he said. They were using this law as a reason to ask for personal, private information from seniors in order to steal their identities.

Stonestreet said crooks may threaten seniors, telling them that they’ll lose their health insurance coverage if they don’t update their information. They may insist that time is of the essence and say the person must make a decision now.

Quite a few other variations of the Medicare scam have been seen across the state and country as well. In one scam, a person calls people to get them to sign up for medical supplies that they need and asks them to provide their Medicare information, he said.

The common element is that all of theses schemes involve an entity that seems trustworthy, some type of threat, or both — all angled toward acquiring personal information, Stonestreet said. Any time someone’s calls out of the blue asking for personal information, they’re probably an identity thief.

If people have made the mistake of giving out their information over the phone, they should contact the Better Business Bureau at 304-345-7502 or info@cantonbbb.org, or the Attorney General’s Office.

West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw’s office recently started the Identity Theft Consumer Resource Unit, which is under the office’s Consumer Protection Division. People can call 1-800-368-8808 to file complaints or talk to experts, email idtheft@wvago.gov, or go online to www.wvago.gov to access resources about identity theft prevention

Strawderman said the Better Business Bureau, which is a nonprofit membership organization, is trying to make its presence more known in the state and wants people to be aware of the protections that it offers.

“We’re made up of various businesses who have basically committed themselves to the practice of good business practices,” she said.

Through the membership of these businesses, the organization is able to offer many services, Strawderman said.

People who have had difficulty with a particular business can call the Better Business Bureau and formally file a complaint. At no charge to the consumer, the agency will step in and attempt to intervene on their behalf, she said.

If persons have questions on advertising or using a business, the Better Business Bureau can check out the company and see if any complaints have been filed against them. The organization provides this service for most business issues, but does not get involved in landlord/tenant disagreements, Strawderman said.

She said businesses don’t have to be a member of the agency to be listed in its files, which are available on its website, www.cantonbbb.org. The Better Business Bureau tries to get as much information as it can on any business and provides a rating ranging from A-plus to F.

A business that is really legitimate won’t mind if someone checks on its credentials, Strawderman said. The Better Business Bureau also cooperates with other agencies to cleanup the business environment to the best of their ability.

“We’re happy to be here. We’re here for the citizens,” she said. “Anything we can do, they should feel free to call.”

Email Jessica Borders at jborders@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @JBordersTWV.