If informed consumers are savvy consumers — and we believe that they are — then a lack of information can leave consumers vulnerable to all sorts of scam attempts. Such attempts are becoming more and more common in the run-up to Oct. 1, when Americans can begin signing up for health insurance coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act.
An official of the Federal Trade Commission was quoted recently as saying the commission has received more than 1,000 complaints about such scam attempts. That number is certain to rise in the next month, as scam artists smell money they’d like to take.
“Any time you roll out a big government program like this, confusion is inevitable,” Lois Greenman of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection said recently. Con artists prey on confusion by making several claims, all of which are false:
— You could be in serious trouble with the law — even be sent to jail — if you don’t sign up now (the truth is, you can’t even sign up until the first of October at the soonest).
— You need a new card to be eligible for Obamacare (truth: there’s no such card. Parting with your personal and financial information will only cost you money).
— You can get a special low monthly rate but only by signing up now (again, the Health Insurance Exchanges — also called the Marketplace — under the ACA won’t be in operation for another month; anyone trying to rush you is just trying to trick you).
As with many scam attempts, seniors may be especially vulnerable. The Maine Senior Medicare Patrol urges people to avoid giving personal and financial information to anyone they don’t know, especially cold callers. Don’t pay for services or help; the Marketplace is hiring and training people, called “navigators,” to assist consumers for free. Don’t sign anything you don’t understand; ask questions if something isn’t clear, and report anything that sounds suspicious.
Delays in implementing parts of the ACA have upset both critics and supporters of the law. The delays only add fuel to the fire that crooked callers try to set once they get you on the phone, or lure you through phony websites.
Other scam attempts will likely involve subsidies the ACA offers to consumers earning less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level — $45,960 for an individual in 2013, or $94,200 for a family of four. A caller might offer “direct deposit” if you’ll “confirm” your bank account and Social Security numbers.
There are some issues people receiving subsidies should consider, such as whether to take the entire subsidy up front or wait until filing their taxes the following year. Eric Cioppa, Superintendent of Maine’s Bureau of Insurance, says people should be prepared. “Consumers should discuss options with known, reputable individuals and sources of information, such as their independent insurance agent,” Cioppa said. People can also find summaries of new plans proposed for individual and small group markets at the bureau’s website, www.maine.gov/insurance. People with questions can call the bureau at 800-300-5000 or email Insurance.email@example.com.
Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.