Elliott Greenblot | AARP Fraud Watch: Stay healthy, watch out for health care scams


Here is a big shock: Health care spending has risen by more than 5 percent each year to where it accounts for approximately 18 percent of the nation's gross domestic product (GDP).

Here is a second big shock: There has been a dramatic increase in the number of health care scams.

Remember that line from the movies? "Follow the money!"

Well, that is exactly what con artists do.

With the dramatic increase in the number of dollars spent, the complexity of the sector, and the confusion exhibited by the public, con artists see phenomenal opportunity.

Three specific approaches have been reported to law enforcement and surprisingly none directly involve computer contacts: Mass media is used to provide toll-free numbers and warn people of a "limited enrollment period" to register for government insurance; other scammers have engaged in door-to-door contacts claiming to be government officials selling medical discount plans; in a third common ploy, telemarketers seek personal information in order to send new Medicare cards required by the Affordable Care Act.

What can you do?

First, watch for official communications. Government officials will not sell insurance policies door-to-door, call you to obtain information, or email you with requests. Official business is transacted using the US Postal Service. Even so, verify sources by calling the agency purported to be the source of any request.

Secondly, know who you are dealing with. If you need assistance, contact the agency or company in question directly. Verify contacts by asking for written information.

Finally, be skeptical. Don't pay anyone who contacts you to help you receive your benefits or register for programs. Never reveal personal information to callers asking you to verify identity with full name, date of birth, Social Security or Medicare number or insurance card information unless you are absolutely certain of the caller's identity.

Turn to state agencies to obtain information or report your concerns. In Massachusetts, contact the Office of Consumer Affairs & Business Regulation (877) 563-4467 or email doicss.mailbox@state.ma.us or the state Attorney General's office.

Online pharmacies

Another major area of health care fraud can be seen in the growth of online pharmacies. Most online pharmacies are legitimate, following the laws and regulations for the industry and putting your health and safety first. Their reliability is clear and insurance companies depend on them for lower priced distribution of medicines.

But some online providers are working to simply turn a profit and put consumers at risk. Some will ship medications without prescriptions or pay physicians to provide profiling information. They fail to cross-reference drugs for interactions and could actually ship medicines that are not appropriate. Often, these unscrupulous vendors sell questionable products. They may distribute out-of-date drugs, unapproved drugs or ones with dangerous ingredients. It is common for their customers to receive inaccurate doses or counterfeit drugs that are clearly dangerous.

There are several proactive steps you can take to protect yourself in the online pharmaceutical market.

Only buy from an online pharmacy that requires a prescription, not completion of an online questionnaire. Prescriptions assure the existence of a partnership between your doctor and the pharmacy.

When examining the company website, verify a street address and telephone number. Conduct an online search of the business and determine whether or not it is licensed to do business (www.fda.gov/BeSafeRx) or validated by an independent organization such as the Better Business Bureau.

Protect your personal information: Social Security or Medicare numbers, credit card numbers, health history. Only enter such information on websites that are secure having an address including "https://" in the URL or a small padlock icon in the address line. Fake pharmacies often sell personal information to other scammers or use it for identity theft.

Use an online pharmacy that allows you to track your orders through an independent shipper such as FedEx, UPS or USPS.

If a membership fee is charged, note whether it is for services or simply provides you with a directory of pharmacies.

Report problems with online pharmacies or unlawful sales to the Food and Drug administration at www.fda.gov/Safety/ReportaProblem.

Falling victim to medical fraud and scams, as with other types scams, means a loss of money and time to repair the damages. The big difference is that this type of fraud can physically harm you or result in death. Taking the proper steps will keep you from becoming a victim.

Elliott Greenblott is a coordinator for the AARP Fraud Watch Network and writes this biweekly column. If you suspect that you may be a victim of a computer-based scam, call the AARP Fraud Watch Network hotline at 877-908-3360 or the Massachusetts Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division at (617) 727-8400. The topic for next time: Investment fraud.


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