So in coming weeks, remember the absolutely easiest step to avoid a Medicare scam: Never reveal your card number — it's the same as your Social Security number — or other personal health and financial information to anyone who's not a bona fide member of your health care team.
And keep an eye out for these dirtiest half-dozen open enrollment scams.
1. New card cons. In phone calls and occasionally emails or front-door visits, you're told that Medicare is issuing new cards, and to get yours, you need to provide identifying information such as your Medicare number, birth date or even financial account numbers. Identity theft is the real goal.
What to know: Medicare isn't issuing new cards and its employees don't contact participants through unsolicited calls, emails or visits. They won't ask for personal identifiers unless you contact the agency yourself.
2. Refund rip-offs. Scammers claim you're entitled to money back because of "changes" or "enhancements" by Medicare or private insurers, or because of purported lawsuits or actions by government agencies. In these schemes, the goal is to get not only your Medicare number, but your bank account information for a supposed direct deposit.
What to know: If you're really entitled to a refund, a check will be sent directly to you. You won't have to "prove" or provide anything. If you get Social Security, Uncle Sam already has your direct-deposit account on file, so Medicare wouldn't ask for it.
3. Posers galore. In seeking your personal information, crooks may also claim to be from state or local health agencies, doctor's offices or hospitals, or an official-sounding but phony organization such as the National Medical Office. And they may try to trick you by manipulating your caller ID screen.
What to know: Never trust caller ID. Scammers can easily make it display whatever identity and phone number they choose, thanks to "spoofing" products for sale on the Internet. Also, don't be taken in if callers have personal info about you: Fraudsters have been known to contact Medicare patients and accurately give the names and addresses of their doctors. It's unclear how they got the information.
If you think a call may be genuine, hang up, look up the agency's number yourself and call it back. For Medicare, it's 800-633-4227 (for TTY callers, dial 877-486-2048 toll-free).
4. False freebies. You get a call offering you free medical supplies or a health checkup. The caller may even know something about your medical condition. Or you're invited to go somewhere for a complimentary checkup.
What to know: Assume that an unsolicited call promising supplies for diabetes or other medical conditions is another attempt to collect your Medicare/Social Security number. Or to soften you up for pitches for overpriced goods later. Plus, you may be told your credit card is needed for "shipping charges."
Complimentary checkups — offered by traveling clinics or temporary storefronts — can also be just an effort to get you to reveal personal identifiers. There are legitimate ones too, of course, so if you're thinking of going, first check out the organization that's offering it.
5. Supplemental swindles. Open enrollment is prime time for insurance salespeople to pitch supplemental policies that they promise will save you thousands in out-of-pocket costs. While there are many legitimate policies on the market, some bearing the AARP logo, not all make sense for everyone. And it's not unknown for salespeople to push this kind of insurance with scare tactics, free lunch seminars and false claims of being with a government agency.
What to know: Before signing anything, compare medigap policies at this Medicare website or call your local AARP chapter. As with investment scams, "free lunch seminar" is often a high-pressure pitch for insurance that may be wrong for you but right for the salesman. And know that private companies — not the government — sell Medicare Advantage and medigap plans.
6. Billing bilking. Told that something isn't "usually" covered by Medicare, but there's a way around the rule? Or that you can get a kickback for providing your Medicare number or undergoing unnecessary treatment? You may get this kind of offer if you go to a "free" medical checkup offered by a shady group.
What to know: No matter how it's said, it spells fraud — and possible criminal charges against both you and the other person. Medicare fraud is a huge problem, costing taxpayers about $60 billion a year. When in doubt, check with Medicare or your supplemental insurance provider. You should only sign a release form allowing others to make Medicare decisions on your behalf if the form's been carefully reviewed by you, a trusted family member or friend, or an attorney.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.