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Beware of Medicare Open Enrollment Scams

Closely guard your Medicare number and personal information from potential identity theft

Scam Alert: Medicare Scams

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Be aware of who might be on the other end of the telephone line. Don't simply trust your caller ID.

En español | Medicare scams are a year-round concern, but the coming weeks warrant special attention. Open enrollment runs from Oct. 15 through Dec. 7 — during that time frame Medicare beneficiaries can make changes to their 2015 health plan and prescription coverage. For identity thieves, it's open season.

The most common ploy: Posing as employees from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) or other government agencies, scammers claim that new cards are being issued. To get yours, they say, you need to verify or update sensitive information, including your Medicare number, which likely is also your Social Security number.

Don't fall for it. "Medicare will never call you and ask you for your personal information, such as your Medicare number, over the phone. Never," says CMS spokesman Aaron Albright. Nor will Medicare email or visit your home unannounced to collect data that, after all, it already has.

Despite impostors' claims, there are no plans to issue new Medicare cards. (Lost or stolen cards can be replaced at ssa.gov or by calling 800-772-1213.) Although many consumer advocates — including AARP and the Federal Trade Commission — have urged the government not to use Social Security numbers on the cards, a 2011 report concluded that changing the system would cost upward of $845 million.

So for now it's up to you to closely guard your Medicare number. And take these other steps, too.

Don't give out any account numbers

In addition to wanting your Medicare info, scammers may angle for a bank account number, saying they need it to process payment on an overdue medical bill. And don't be fooled if they accurately cite a few digits from your checks.

"Just hang up," suggests Josh Hodges, who oversees the Senior Medicare Patrol, a group of 5,000 volunteers who educate Medicare beneficiaries on scam prevention.

Don't trust caller ID

It can be easily manipulated to display whatever name or phone number the scammers choose.

Flee from "free"

Phone calls promising free medical supplies are often bids to harvest your personal information — a credit card number for alleged shipping charges, for instance. Also, be careful with pop-up storefronts and traveling clinics offering free health checkups that require personal data.

Nix supplemental swindles

Open enrollment is prime time for unscrupulous salesmen to pressure you to buy supplemental insurance products that will supposedly save you thousands. Before signing anything, compare medigap policies at medicare.gov.

Mind your records. To spot fraud, carefully review the Medicare Summary Notice that comes in the mail quarterly. Or check it anytime online at mymedicare.gov. You can also call 800-MEDICARE.

Nix bilking billing, too

Are you 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 that is offered by a shady group. No matter how it's said, it spells fraud — and possible criminal charges against both you and the other person. When in doubt, check with Medicare or your supplemental insurance provider.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.

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