Health & Fitness

Beware of scams seeking Medicare information

Seniors are again getting phone calls from scammers trying to steal personal and financial information, this time by claiming a Medicare HMO owes them a refund.

The callers in one recent scheme claim to work for insurance giant Humana or its CarePlus subsidiary, and say they need the senior's birth date, Social Security, bank account and Medicare numbers to arrange the refund, Humana officials said.

Scammers typically use such information to take out credit or debit cards in the senior's name and run up big bills. It's unclear if any seniors have given the callers their personal details or had any money stolen, company spokesman Mitchell Lubitz said. In one case, a Medicare recipient in Hialeah, Fla., arranged for the caller to come to her house to pick up money for a Medicare payment but notified Humana and summoned police, who arrested the person on the spot, Lubitz said.

The callers do not work for the health plans, and officials try to track them, Lubitz said. Medicare forbids insurers from making sales calls to seniors unless they ask in advance for a call, so an HMO sales agent on the phone should be a red flag, Lubitz said.

"Seniors are not going to get unsolicited calls from a legitimate health plan. And any legitimate caller is certainly not going to ask for their personal details," Lubitz said. "This is the time of year when seniors have to be extra careful."

Scammers have stepped up phony cold calls to seniors in the past five years, since Medicare started offering prescription drug coverage through insurers. Medicare has issued warnings about the problems regularly, including twice this year.

The government urges seniors to be skeptical when someone asks for personal details and to give the information only to people they are sure about.

How Medicare patients can avoid identity theft

* Guard your Medicare and Social Security numbers as carefully as credit cards.

* Be suspicious of someone on the phone or in person offering cash, gifts or free services in exchange for your Medicare number.

* Do not give your personal information to sales agents who contact you uninvited. They are not allowed to call or visit unless you agree in advance.

* Do not give payment information over the phone to enroll in an insurance or drug plan. Legitimate insurers must send bills unless you initiate other options.

* Hang up if someone calls unsolicited asking for your Medicare number in connection with a survey or other purpose.

* Do not lend your Medicare number or identity to someone else to be used to obtain a service. It's illegal.

* Check medical bills for charges you don't recognize. Contact the provider in case it's a mistake. If it's not a mistake, call Medicare.