A federal effort to clamp down on Medicare fraud has inadvertently opened up new possibilities for fraudsters who prey on the elderly, prompting a California-wide education campaign.
Starting in April 2018, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) will begin mailing out new Medicare cards to seniors and disabled people enrolled in the federal health insurance program. The new cards will display a randomly assigned identification code instead of the Social Security numbers displayed on the current cards. Federal officials hope the change will make it harder for criminals to steal Social Security numbers and benefit fraudulently from the Medicare system.
There’s just one problem: Criminals are apparently seizing on news about the change to take advantage of unsuspecting seniors. Medicare counselors working in California said they’ve already heard reports of seniors receiving calls from fraudsters pretending to be CMS representatives requesting information for the new cards. These con artists attempt to obtain social security numbers, bank account numbers and other personal information over the phone, said Micki Nozaki, director of a federally funded Medicare fraud prevention and education program in California called Senior Medicare Patrol.
“The criminals are always at least one step ahead of us,” she said. “People are very leery about losing their benefits. Criminals can tell people whatever they want, like ‘it’s urgent that you send me $100 or that you give me access to your banking account because we don’t want your benefits to be disrupted.’ The criminals will tell seniors anything in order to get some money or their personal information. It’s horrible.”
In response to the problem, Senior Medicare Patrol has launched a statewide campaign to alert Medicare recipients about the potential for fraud related to the release of the new cards. They’ve produced television and website announcements informing seniors that Medicare never calls or emails recipients about their ID or Social Security cards and that there is no charge for the cards. Seniors are warned not to disclose personal information over the phone, and to report fraudulent calls to the patrol’s hotline.
So far the announcements have been broadcast on television in Orange and San Diego counties, and shared with partner health agencies for use on their websites, Nozaki said. The program has also produced a brochure on the subject for distribution to locations frequented by seniors such as pharmacies, libraries, medical clinics and senior centers.
The campaign is several months ahead of a planned federal education campaign. Nozaki said Senior Medicare Patrol felt it was important to start educating seniors in the state as soon as possible given California’s 5 million-strong Medicare population and high incidence of Medicare fraud in the state.
One county that has jumped on the campaign is San Mateo. There, 15 percent of the population is age 65 or older, higher than the statewide average of 13 percent. The county’s Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program (HICAP) – a volunteer-supported Medicare counseling organization – together with county supervisor David Canepa, launched anti-fraud education efforts this month.
Aileen Fisher, a local HICAP volunteer and liaison to the Senior Medicare Patrol said she’s been giving talks about fraud at senior residences. The county HICAP program has about 30 Medicare counselors altogether working to get the word out to seniors, she said.
“We keep getting calls now that people are hearing about (the campaign) and they would like a presentation,” she said. “It’s taking off. Identity theft is a very big deal. It affects millions of people and costs billions of dollars.”
(To report suspected Medicare fraud call the SMP toll-free helpline at 1- 855-613-7080).