From now until midnight on Dec. 7, it's open enrollment for Medicare — and open season for scammers seeking your money and identity.
Open enrollment began on Oct. 15, and since then, officials in many parts of the country have reported an uptick in phone-calling cons and deceptive door-to-door visits.
Among the schemes:
- The imposter employee. In this most common form of the scam, you get a phone call — or sometimes an email or knock on the door — from a con artist pretending to be an employee of Medicare, a state agency or an official-sounding (but nonexistent) organization such as the National Medical Office.
Whatever the alleged affiliation, you're told you need to be issued a new Medicare card, perhaps one with enhanced benefit options. But first, you're asked to authenticate your identity by providing your Medicare number (which is your Social Security number) and your date of birth.
You may even be asked for a credit card or bank account number, under the guise of covering the cost of the new card or further "verifying" your identity.
Medicare will not call you asking for your number; it will ask for it only when you contact the agency yourself. And there are no legitimate Medicare agents who will visit your home or send unsolicited emails.
Providing your identifiers to these people is just a set-up for possible identity theft. The requested information is all that fraudsters need to establish new credit accounts in your name. The info can also be used to make bogus duplicate cards for medical identity theft, in which health care services are provided to someone else using your identity.
- Refund ripoffs. The scammer tells you you're entitled to a refund for last year's Medicare premiums. All you need to do is verify your identity.
The scammer may claim that your refund must be direct-deposited into your bank account. In fact that's just another lie to glean your account number and possibly drain your checking or savings funds.
- Supplemental insurance. An unscrupulous salesman may use this open enrollment period to try to sell you products that will supposedly save you thousands of dollars in insurance costs.
Despite claims of representing Medicare or companies endorsed by it, the motivation is often to sell unrelated, high-commission life insurance or annuities using aggressive sales tactics.
The truth: Federal law prohibits unsolicited sales pitches for Medicare supplemental policies, whether by phone, home visit or "free lunch" seminar.
Don't be fooled by sales material that looks like it's from the government. Private companies — not the government — sell Medicare Advantage and medigap plans.
For information on how to choose a legitimate supplemental policy, contact your state AARP office or visit this Medicare website (PDF).
- "Free" medical supplies. With new enrollment returns an old scam — that Medicare or a private company has deemed you eligible for free supplies for diabetes or some other medical condition.
Typically initiated with a phone call, this con is just another attempt to collect your personal information, including a credit card number to cover "shipping" charges.
But what can make this ruse appear especially convincing is that the caller may know the name and address of your doctor. That information could come from stolen medical records or hackers getting their hands on data about patient conditions kept by pharmaceutical companies or medical equipment suppliers.
Whatever the come-on, provide no information about yourself.
For bona fide help with free or low-cost supplies, you should place the call yourself — to your doctor or to a group such as the American Diabetes Association or American Heart Association.
Programs run by these organizations in conjunction with pharmaceutical companies, equipment manufacturers and discount retailers may be restricted by income.
For more information on choosing a plan that's best for you, visit Medicare.gov or call 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227).
Also of interest: Criminals bilk Medicare of billions each year. >>
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.