Starting in October people who pay for their own health insurance can start signing up for policies through health care exchanges, operated by states and the federal government. It's part of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
While a number of people may be looking forward to getting better health coverage than they have now, scammers are already capitalizing on the confusion surrounding the new program to steal money and identities. Law enforcement officials worry it's about to get a lot worse.
For example, do you know what you need to do to get enrolled in a new policy? Do you even know if you are required to take any action? Perhaps not. There has not been a vigorous information campaign associated with the roll out, though it's likely we'll hear more once October arrives. Again, that could be part of the problem.
Not enough information
Scammers often take advantage of high-profile news events to trick their prey. People may have heard something about the topic but lack complete information or understanding. When a smooth-talking scammer gets them on the phone, it's often no contest.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has already been besieged with complaints from consumers, reporting similar variations on the scheme. Usually a caller claims to be from the government and offers to register the victim over the phone. In the process they collect vital information, like Social Security and bank account numbers.
Here are some of the things a scammer might tell you and here's the truth:
You don't need a new ID card
The scammer will say you must have a new medical ID card under the new Affordable Care Act and will offer to register you over the phone. In truth, there is no medical ID card. The only insurance card you will need is one issued by your insurance provider.
The scammer might also offer to take a credit card payment over the phone to allow the victim to opt out of the requirement to have health insurance. That's not how it works. If you do not meet the individual mandate to buy health insurance, you will pay an extra tax. However, that tax is paid to the Internal Revenue Service when you file your tax return.
But complicating matters is the fact that not everyone who you might speak on the phone with about Obamacare is necessarily a scammer. That's because each health exchange will develop a network of “navigators,” whose job it will be to educate people about the new law and answer questions.
Don't pay a fee
The navigators are supposed to be drawn from a list of established community organizations and the service is to be provided at no charge. Someone identifying themselves as a navigator, but who asks for personal or financial information – and who requests a fee – should be considered a bad guy.
Bogus websites can be expected to proliferate. Already federal and state regulators have shut down sites seeking to use Obamacare as a pretext for fleecing victims. Some of these sites are not operated by criminals but by businesses stepping way over ethical boundary lines.
Recently a site claiming to be the Pennsylvania Health Exchange was shown to actually be operated by a private insurance broker. After media exposure and a state investigation, the site disappeared.
Further complicating matters is the fact that each state is responsible for operating a health care exchange for its citizens and each exchange may be different. A consumer's best defense against scammers will be awareness that they are out there and taking the initiative – contacting your state's exchange directly, not responding to telephone calls.
How do you find your state's exchange. The official Obamacare website, HealthCare.gov, offers some guidance. You can find your state's exchange at the bottom of this page.
Meanwhile, if you get a phone calls from someone you suspect of being an Obamacare scammer, the FTC says it would like to hear about it. If you have caller ID on your phone, write down the caller's number and give it to the FTC at 1-877-FTC-HELP.