The Color of Money: In health care chaos, beware of hucksters

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WASHINGTON -- Obamacare is upon us, and already fraudsters are out to cheat people.

With a lot of confusion about the health insurance marketplaces, consumers are receiving phone calls from people claiming to provide insurance cards needed under the Affordable Care Act. Keep your guard up, says Edward Johnson, president and chief executive of the Better Business Bureau of Metro Washington, D.C., and Eastern Pennsylvania.

One of the more controversial and confusing provisions of the law, and one that con artists might try to exploit, is the provision that requires most Americans to maintain "minimum essential" health insurance coverage. A just-released Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that about half of respondents do not understand how the law will impact their own families.

Kaiser found that just over a third of the public, including the uninsured, say they have tried to get more information, most often through a general Internet search.

That should please the con artists. Fraudsters are pretty clever about creating websites that spoof legitimate Internet sites.

Mr. Johnson said the likelihood that health insurance schemes will increase will only get worse over the next four to six months as the Affordable Care Act is implemented.

"Scammers take advantage of the latest policy or new program to hook potential victims with something new in the news that they don't yet know much about," he said.

The Federal Trade Commission is hosting a roundtable Sept. 19 to discuss health care-related scams.

The agency is bringing together federal and state consumer protection officials, legal service providers, community organizations, and consumer advocates to discuss how best to help consumers avoid potential scams.

"We have lots of eyes on the marketplace already," said Lois Greisman, associate director of the FTC's Division of Marketing Practices.

So how might one of the scams work?

You might receive a call from someone claiming to be from the federal government, Mr. Johnson said.

The caller informs you that you've been selected as part of the initial group of Americans to receive insurance cards through the new Affordable Care Act. That's the hook and a lie. Before he or she can mail your card, you are then told you need to provide some personal information. That's the heart of the scam.

The goal is to get you to provide personal information such as your bank account or Social Security number.

Scammers can use this information to open credit cards in your name or steal from your bank account.

There are no special insurance cards being issued as part of the enrollment for the Affordable Care Act. Further, open enrollment doesn't start until Oct. 1. So anyone claiming they can sign you up now is deceiving you.

Here are some tips from the BBB to protect yourself:

• Government agencies normally communicate through the mail, so immediately put up your guard if you get an unsolicited call, text message or email from someone claiming they are going to help you sign up for health insurance. The way the exchanges work, you must take the initiative to sign up.

• If you get an unsolicited call regarding health care insurance, hang up.

Don't engage the person. If you need any information go to www.healthcare.gov, the official insurance marketplace website. You can also dial a toll-free number -- 1-800-318-2596 -- 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Hearing-impaired callers using TTY/TDD technology can dial 1-855-889-4325 for assistance.

Kaiser found few people were turning to health insurance companies, nonprofit or community organization or government websites to become informed. Be sure you are searching legitimate sites.

• Don't trust what you see come up on your caller-ID screen. Scammers have access to technology to manipulate the screen to display any number or organization name.

• Never give out personal information such as credit card numbers, bank account or Social Security numbers or your date of birth to unfamiliar callers.

If you suspect a scammer has contacted you or if you've been conned, file a complaint at www.ftc.gov. To file a complaint in English or Spanish click on the link on the home page that says "Consumer Complaint?" You can also call the FTC at 1-877-382-4357. Tell the BBB by going to www.bbb.org/scam.

"Consumer complaints are critical in helping us identify and stop these scams. We want to hear from consumers," Ms. Greisman said.

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Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is michelle.singletary@washpost.com.


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