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Pandemic Scammers Target Older Americans on Medicare

HHS fields hundreds of fraud complaints tied to COVID-19

spinner image The words "Fraud" spelled out on wooden cubes
Neydtstock / getty images

Criminals are targeting older Americans on Medicare using a variety of fraud schemes tied to the coronavirus pandemic, a government official warns.

In normal times, swindlers try everything from A to Z to deceive, but now many are zeroing in on the letter “C,” using COVID-19 as they lie, cheat and steal.

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Often the goal is to steal your Medicare number or your money, says Nenette Day, assistant special agent in charge at the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General.

Her office, which fights waste, fraud and abuse in Medicare and other HHS programs, has received 1,500-plus fraud complaints tied to COVID-19 in recent months, Day says.

"When you see a volume like that, you know that the problem is much bigger,” Day notes, saying that many frauds go unreported because victims may be embarrassed or not know where to report the crime.

Two critical prevention tips

Keep two things in mind to avoid getting ripped off, she says.

  • Medicare will never contact you out of the blue in a phone call, email, text message or social media post. Unsolicited communications are a red flag.
  • Medicare will never ask you for your Medicare number (it already has it) or other sensitive data, such as a credit card number.

Day urges people to keep a script by the phone and use it to thwart the crooks: “I do not give out personal information in an unsolicited call."

If an unsolicited caller purports to be from, say, your doctor's office, do due diligence and call the office using a phone number that you know is genuine.

Fraud prevention is critical because arrests and prosecutions won't stop the cons emanating from call centers in the U.S. and foreign countries, Day says.

Crooks are like ‘cockroaches'

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"That's like trying to exterminate cockroaches by stepping on them one at a time,” she says. “These despicable people can spend their whole day calling and getting hung up on. And that is what we want.”

Fundamentally, keep in mind that Medicare, which provides health insurance for people 65 and older, operates much like a private-sector insurer, as it generally contacts enrollees by mail, Day says.

5 More Tips to Deter Fraudsters

  • Be suspicious of any unexpected callers or visitors offering COVID-19 tests or supplies. If your personal information is compromised, it may be used in other schemes.
  • Do not respond to, or open hyperlinks in, text messages about COVID-19 from unknown individuals.
  • Ignore offers or ads on social media sites touting COVID-19 testing or treatments.
  • A physician or other trusted health care provider should assess your condition and approve a request for COVID-19 testing.
  • Be aware of scammers pretending to be COVID-19 contact tracers. Legitimate contact tracers will never ask for your Medicare number or financial information.

If you have a problem with your benefits, call 800-MEDICARE. If you haven't initiated a conversation with a Medicare representative, be wary if you get an unsolicited call from someone purporting to be from the program.

If you suspect COVID-19 health care fraud involving Medicare, immediately report it online or call 800-HHS-TIPS (800-447-8477).

When someone calls out of the blue and starts asking for personally identifiable information, invariably it's a ruse, Day warns.

Personally identifiable information (PII) is any data that can be used to identify someone. Examples include your full name, Social Security number, driver's license number, financial account numbers, passport number and email addresses.

Hang up the phone, halt the fraud

"If somebody is calling saying they're from Medicare, the best thing to do is hang up,” Day urges.

The COVID-19 scams aimed at older Americans vary, she says. Some examples:

  • Early in the pandemic, con artists were telling Medicare beneficiaries that they were eligible for “COVID Wellness Kits” containing hand sanitizer or face masks. Or they were promised in-home COVID-19 tests or additional Medicare coverage.
  • Criminals have been posing as medical or hospital employees, telling people that their doctor wants them to be tested for the coronavirus. The crooks will set up phony appointments and demand that a copay be submitted in advance by credit card, citing a need for contactless payment.
  • Fraudsters have been going to people's homes to administer fake tests for COVID-19. They've also set up sham drive-through test sites. Others have touted fake cures and treatments for an illness for which there currently is no cure.
  • Con artists have been masquerading as contact tracers.
  • Fraudsters are hijacking Facebook accounts and posing as other people, boasting about having received an HHS grant, ranging from $5,000 to $15,000, because of the COVID-19 crisis. On the last point, Day noted that because it may be a real friend of yours whose Facebook account was hacked, the communication may seem legit. But while HHS issues grants to researchers, it doesn't distribute money to people who do nothing in return, she says.

Inevitably, if you pursue such bogus opportunities, you will be asked to pay a fee or a tax in advance — and never see the big bucks.

Day brings FBI chops to HHS

The Office of Inspector General at HHS is the largest of its kind in the government, with about 1,600 employees.

spinner image Nenette Day
Nenette Day fights Medicare fraud. She is a longtime federal law enforcement official.

Day, 53, carries a badge and gun and is one of 74 assistant special agents in charge at her agency and oversees its fraud hotline.

She's an Air Force brat born outside Washington, D.C., at Joint Base Andrews in suburban Maryland; her father worked in military intelligence.

With her agency for almost two years, Day earlier worked for 10 years as an FBI agent and spent eight years at the Treasury Department's Office of Inspector General.

Naturally, she's shared her fraud-fighting tips with her mother, who is in her 90s and on Medicare. “Bless her heart; if you call her and she doesn't know you, she hangs up on you. Because I've trained her, and she's never once been the victim of a scam."

Been scammed? Here's where to report it.

  • If you believe you've been the target of Medicare fraud, call 800-HHS-TIPS (1-800-447-8477) or immediately report it online.
  • If you believe you've been the target of private-sector health care fraud, contact the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center.
  • If you believe you've been the victim of identity theft, contact the Federal Trade Commission's Complaint Assistant.

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