Financial scams aimed at seniors have become so prevalent that they’re now considered “the” crime of the 21st century. Why? Because seniors – with their nest eggs, paid-off mortgages, and excellent credit ratings – make an extremely attractive target.
Older Americans are also less likely to report fraud: because they don’t know who to report it to, are too ashamed at having been scammed, or don’t know they have been scammed. Victims may not report crimes, for example, because they are concerned that relatives may think they no longer have the mental capacity to take care of their own financial affairs.
In addition, the FBI points out, seniors were generally raised to be polite and trusting. Con artists exploit these traits, knowing that it is difficult or impossible for many seniors to say “no” or just hang up the telephone.
Medicare scams are especially prevalent, since every U.S. citizen or permanent resident over age 65 qualifies for the program. Dishonest brokers or identity thieves don’t need to research what private health insurance company older people have in order to scam them out of some money.
Fortunately, savvy consumers can protect themselves and the assets they worked a lifetime to create by heeding the following tips when enrolling in Medicare:
- Be suspicious of people who call you or contact you in person about Medicare plans or your healthcare needs when you haven’t requested that they do so. According to law, insurance brokers may not call, email or approach you in person, in your home, or in any public place to try to sell you a Medicare plan or prescription drug policy. (They are allowed to send you advertisements in the mail or to contact you if you have previously given them permission to do so.) Chances are, anyone who contacts you in this way is a scammer, an identity thief, or a dishonest broker not following the law.
- Don’t let yourself be pressured by phony time limits. When you first become eligible for Medicare, during open enrollment (October 15 to December 7), or any time you are eligible to switch plans, you can take advantage of the entire allotted time to make your decision. There are no “early bird” discounts, “limited time offers,” or reasons to “act now for the best deal.”
- Don’t be tempted by free gifts or services. While the law does allow plans to offer promotional items worth no more than $15, they cannot be given on the condition that you enroll in that plan. Be especially wary if free medical exams, services or supplies are offered in exchange for your Medicare number: This is a scam used to steal your identity.
- Be cautious of offers for free healthcare screenings. Dishonest brokers often try to weed out unhealthy applicants through free health screenings at educational or sales events. Called “cherry picking,” this practice violates Medicare rules. Dishonest brokers might also hold sales events on the second floor of a building without elevators, thereby keeping out applicants who are too ill to climb stairs. Be very suspicious of either of these practices, even if you are healthy: If a broker is willing to violate this Medicare rule, what other rules might they violate?
- Never give out your Social Security number, Medicare number, or banking account information to anyone you do not know. A common scam is to collect identity information at “educational” events. While you might be asked to sign in with your name, be very cautious if you are asked for any other personal or financial information. That information is not required, and honest brokers won’t ask for it. And remember: Medicare will never call, email, or visit you to ask for your personal information.
- Carefully review all communications from Medicare or your healthcare plan for unauthorized changes in your coverage, or charges for services or equipment that you did not receive. Such irregularities can be a sign that identity thieves already have obtained your Medicare number or your Social Security number. Report any suspicious activity right away to 1-800-MEDICARE or your health plan.
- Get trustworthy help understanding your options. Medicare is a massive enterprise that affects approximately 55 million Americans – which means millions of potential sales contacts from insurance companies each year. While some of the plans they suggest may sound familiar, not all policies are right for everyone. To avoid confusion and possibly expensive mistakes, get unbiased advice from a resource you can trust. One excellent resource is your local State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP). SHIPs provide free, federally funded Medicare counseling through a trained staff member or volunteer. In Ohio, you can reach the Ohio Senior Health Insurance Information Program (OSHIIP) at 1-800-686-1578, or send email to email@example.com.
For more tips for avoiding Medicare enrollment fraud, visit these websites: