Beware of con artists' schemes related to Affordable Care Act

Consumers weren't able to sign up for insurance under new health care exchanges until last week, but con artists have been scheming for months to steal money or Social Security numbers under the guise of the Affordable Care Act.

And it's bound to get worse, regulators and consumer advocates fear.


Health care exchanges officially opened Oct. 1, allowing consumers to shop on these online marketplaces for insurance from private companies. All the publicity around the rollout is likely to be used by con artists as a peg for new schemes.

"They will use whatever new thing is on the horizon," said Kim Cammarata, director of the health education and advocacy unit of the Maryland attorney general's office.

Regulators and consumer advocates have been working to get ahead of the scammers. The Federal Trade Commission recently held a public meeting on how to protect consumers against fraud with the arrival of health care marketplaces. And the Better Business Bureau, Consumer Federation of America and others have published tips to help consumers recognize fraud.

"We don't want to frighten people off of taking advantage of this new benefit," said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection with the Consumer Federation of America. "But we want them to be careful about it."

Here are things to be on the lookout for as you navigate the new exchanges:

Help is free Don't pay for it. Maryland's exchange, the Maryland Health Connection, has people to help you navigate the site and select a policy, and the exchange's call center at 855-642-8572 can answer your questions. Help doesn't cost a penny.

Don't deal with anyone who tries to charge you a fee to enroll you in the state program. Instead, the Maryland Health Connection advises, report the person to the exchange's compliance department at 410-547-1816.

Similarly, don't take calls from strangers offering to sell you an Affordable Care Act-compliant policy in exchange for your credit card number, said FTC spokesman Frank Dorman. No one legitimate will call you out of the blue to enroll you in the plan, he said.


New insurance cards The Better Business Bureau recently reported that consumers received calls from a scammer claiming to be from the federal government and telling them they were chosen to receive insurance cards through the Affordable Care Act. The caller said the consumers needed to provide bank account and Social Security numbers before the cards could be mailed out.

A similar scheme occurred in Maryland a year earlier. Maryland's attorney general then warned that con artists were calling consumers and telling them they must get a new Medicare card because of the health care law. The scheme seemed to have abated, but lately there's been a resurgence, Cammarata said. There is no need to get a new Medicare card because of the health law.

Policy pushers If you're on Medicare, you meet the government mandate to have insurance next year.

That might not stop someone from trying to sell you a policy anyway. However, it's illegal for a person who knows you have Medicare to sell you a policy on the exchange, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Medical discount cards Under this scheme, you're sold a card that's supposed to provide discounts at doctors' offices or at drugstores.

"Sometimes they are misleadingly promoted as insurance," said the Consumer Federation's Grant. "And you get this discount card that may or may not be honored by anybody."


Pitches for these cards aren't new.

"This is a good opportunity for that to flare up again," Grant warned.

That's not Obamacare calling Don't let your guard down if Caller ID shows that the caller appears to be from the government or other legitimate source, said Jody Thomas, vice president of communications with the Better Business Bureau of Greater Maryland. Con artists have technology that can "spoof" Caller ID, making any number or name they want show up on your screen, she said.

Uncle Sam prefers snail mail If the federal government is going to contact you, it's not going to be by email or text message, Thomas said. The government typically contacts consumers via the U.S. Postal Service.

High-pressure tactics Beware of ads that try to get you to "act now" or push you to make a decision quickly.

Open enrollment in health exchanges will run through March 31, so you have time to buy. Those who want coverage to start on Jan. 1, though, are advised to purchase coverage by mid-December.

Suspect fraud? Report it. Marylanders can contact the attorney general's health education and advocacy unit at 410-528-1840 or 877-261-8807. Or if you gave personal information to someone you now suspect was illegitimate, contact Maryland's Identity Theft Unit at 410-576-6491.

The FTC wants to hear about fraud, too. Call 877-382-4357.