Con artists looking for their next scheme can usually find plenty of fodder in the health care field.
Especially enticing to these crooks are new health programs. One example was the Medicare prescription drug benefit, which led to a rash of scams after it was launched in 2006.
Now, with the rollout of Obamacare, health-related scams are increasing again, says the National Consumers League, a nonprofit advocacy group. The law, officially known as the Affordable Care Act (ACA), is the nation’s most sweeping change in health care in decades.
It’s probably only a matter of time before the scams hit Georgia. The state insurance commissioner’s office said last week that it’s not aware of any ACA-related fraud cases here yet. But the agency has said it expects to see them.
Georgia is sure to be a tempting venue for the latest bunch of health care scammers. It is now officially estimated to be the eighth most populous state in the nation, with hundreds of thousands of people who could be affected by the ACA’s changes and are potential targets for fraud.
“Any time you roll out a big government program like this, confusion is inevitable,’’ Lois Greisman, an associate director in the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission, told CNBC recently. “This confusion creates a tremendous opportunity for the fraudster.’’
A recent poll by InsuranceQuotes.com found that 85 percent of respondents didn’t think consumers had enough information about the Affordable Care Act.
As open enrollment for the ACA’s health insurance exchanges begins Oct. 1, the con artists will ramp up their own operations right along with it. In one sense, they actually have a head start.
“There are fake exchanges already up and running on the Internet,’’ Monica Lindeen, Montana’s commissioner of securities and insurance, told CNBC. “If you do a search and type in ‘exchange,’ you’ll find all sorts of websites that claim to be in the exchange when they are not.’’
The National Consumers League recently warned about the wave of fraud that’s occurring. “We’re seeing an increase and we’re trying to get ahead of it,’’ said John Breyault, a vice president of public policy with the group.
The term “Obamacare,’’ though not even an official name, is commonly used by these con artists, apparently because of the public’s familiarity with it, a Nevada official told the New York Times. And as with other scams, seniors are a frequent target.
According to the National Consumers League, the schemes include:
** Scammers in Massachusetts marketed fake health insurances policies and created fake websites that claimed to sell Obamacare, targeting seniors to gain their personal information.
** In Kansas and Alabama, crooks posing as government employees persuaded consumers to divulge their bank account numbers in order to sign up for fake health plans.
** A company in Arizona deceived a senior into providing her bank account number by claiming that she was qualified to sign up for Obamacare but that there were only 20 spots left.
Scammers have also told consumers to wire money or send funds via a prepaid card if they want the full benefits of the new health care program.
In the month of May alone, the Federal Trade Commission received more than 1,100 complaints about similar scams, according to the National Consumers League’s fraud.org website.
Another variation of the scam begins with fraudsters claiming to be “navigators,” insurance counselors who are helping consumers with enrolling in the exchanges, or marketplaces. The Obama administration last week announced the organizations that will provide navigators across the country.
What to watch out for
Here are some tips for consumers to avoid being swindled:
** The health insurance exchanges don’t begin enrollment till October, so you can’t buy coverage under the Affordable Care Act until then. Don’t respond to a cold call of any kind, especially one that asks for personal information or money.
** If anyone contacts a consumer by email or fax about Medicare, “it’s likely a scam,’’ Breyault says.
** If someone claiming to be with Obamacare or another federal program asks you to wire money, give out your bank account number or load funds onto a prepaid card, it’s a scam.
** There is no card associated with health care reform, and there is no new Medicare card, and you do not have to update any personal information.
** Don’t let anyone rush you. The rates in the exchange won’t change during the initial enrollment period, Oct. 1 to March 31. Anyone promising a “special price’’ or “limited time offer’’ or who tells you “spots are limited’’ is lying.
** Familiarize yourself with the ACA on the healthcare.gov website.