A 73-year-old widow in a small town in North Dakota learned about it the hard way. Early in September, a man called unexpectedly and offered her a plastic chip card to replace her paper Medicare ID.
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A chip card, the size of a debit or credit card, contains a microchip to encrypt transactions for greater data security. But protecting your data is the last thing bad actors want. Often they aim to defraud the taxpayer-financed Medicare program — or to steal your identity and rip you off.
Personal questions, and many of them
Unfortunately, this widow gave the scammer her Medicare number, which officials say should only be provided to health care professionals whom you trust, such as doctors, pharmacists and insurers.
"To take advantage of somebody who is older, that's disgraceful,” said Jennifer Wolff, 64, the victim's sister, who alerted AARP's Fraud Watch Network helpline, 1-877-908-3360, about the scam. The victim is not being identified for this story.
Wolff knew the caller was a scammer from the get-go. She works with a local hospital and community health center, visiting older folks in their homes to ensure they have the services and equipment they need. Her work led her to suspect that the caller asked about her sister's physical attributes, such as her height, weight and pants size, because he wanted to cheat the government by billing for unneeded durable medical equipment (DME).
Scam calls go out statewide
The North Dakota widow is not alone. About 40 or 50 other residents in the state recently received similar calls, and a number of them also divulged their Medicare numbers, said Assistant Attorney General Parrell Grossman, who directs the Consumer Protection & Antitrust Division in the state attorney general's office.
A consumer alert to North Dakotans is going out soon, said Grossman, who called the scam “particularly dangerous” since some consumers gave up what he called “unique” and “important” identifiers.
He urged scam victims to file complaints. “We've heard every variation, every angle, every pitch … and more often than not, we immediately know that there's something suspicious, and that it is likely a scam."
Criminals rarely target a single state, so it's important to be aware of this crime no matter where you live. A couple of Tennessee residents have reported similar scam calls, said Samantha Fisher, spokeswoman for the state attorney general.
At the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), a spokesperson said Wednesday that the agency is aware of the scam. Once a beneficiary divulges his or her Medicare number, it is used to bill fraudulent claims, he said.
“Medicare will never call beneficiaries to ask for or check” their Medicare number, he added.
Criminals follow the news
Medicare, the federal health insurance program for people 65 and older and people with disabilities, has been a target of criminals since it started in July 1965. With more than 62 million current Medicare recipients, it's a target-rich environment for liars, cheats and thieves. Medicare cards were changed beginning in 2018, when an 11-digit alphanumeric account numbers called Medicare Beneficiary Identifiers (MBIs), replaced the 9-digit Social Security numbers that had identified enrollees.
Scammers “are on the move, developing ways to take advantage of any confusion that may be related to the transition,” the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) warned as the new cards were being rolled out. Some scammers asked beneficiaries to pay for a new card; others threatened to cancel people's health coverage if they didn't share their new number. The FCC said then that stolen data could be used to file fake claims or fill prescriptions or be sold on the dark web, where crooks buy and sell things.
Grossman, the assistant attorney general, urges consumers to be skeptical about unsolicited contacts. “Never believe it when someone reaches out and says they're with the Social Security Administration or Medicare, because it is likely not true,” he said. “They wouldn't call you out of the blue.” Instead call a real phone number for Medicare, either its regional or national headquarters in Washington, he advised.
Just. Hang. Up.
Wolff, whose sister was victimized, echoes the advice of law enforcement experts on what to do when a stranger calls and asks for personal information: Hang up. “Be suspicious of those phone calls that come unsolicited. Have a high index of suspicion,” she said. “Don't try to be nice or polite or whatever. Just hang up the phone.” Scam callers “are not being polite to you, so you don't want to be polite to them."
If you suspect Medicare fraud or identity theft
• If you suspect Medicare fraud, immediately report it online or call 800-HHS-TIPS (800-447-8477).
• You may also wish to contact your state consumer protection office.
• Senior Medicare Patrols also advise beneficiaries, families and caregivers if patients are billed for services they did not receive or if they suspect other types of Medicare fraud.
• If you believe your identity has been stolen, contact the Federal Trade Commission's Identity Theft Hotline (877-438-4338) and visit an FTC website, identitytheft.gov, to develop a recovery plan.