It’s the annual health care enrollment clusterf**k, which means it’s a perfect time for scammers to prey on confused consumers. And they are pouncing. YouMail, which tracks robocalls, says phony calls targeting consumers shopping for health insurance are the most common phone scam now. The firm counted 500 million such calls last month. I can tell you I’m getting several of these calls each day.
“Open enrollment window is here. Insurance policies have all been reduced nationwide,” says one scam call, logged by YouMail (Click to listen to it). “You can now get a great insurance plans at the price you can afford. We make it hassle free to sign up with the policies from Signa Blue Cross Etna United and many more. Press one now to get a hassle free assessment or press two to be placed on our do not call list. Thank you and it’s always be happy blessed.”
Overall, robocalls surpassed the 5 billion mark last month, most since YouMail started tracking them in 2015.
“Every time we think the robocall epidemic has peaked, it turns out it hasn’t,” said YouMail CEO Alex Quilici.
In one flavor of the scam, criminals promise inexpensive health care plans and talk victims into coughing up personal information that’s used later to commit identity theft. In another version, victims are sold useless healthcare discount plans that scammers frame as cheaper than the consumers’ current health insurance. (Let’s pause for a moment and ponder how absurd America’s health insurance system is — and that it’s so confusing and expensive it sets consumers up for such a scam.)
The scams do work. A Florida-based company named Simple Health Plans allegedly collected $100 million from tens of thousands of victims, according to a recent Federal Trade Commission lawsuit. Consumers paid up to $500 a month for a relatively worthless product, the agency said.
“Defendants misled people to think they were buying comprehensive health insurance that would cover preexisting medical conditions, prescription drugs, primary and specialty care treatment, inpatient and emergency hospital care, surgical procedures, and medical and laboratory testing,” the FTC said. “Consumers who enrolled reported paying as much as $500 per month for what was actually a medical discount program or extremely limited benefit program that did not deliver the promised benefits and effectively left consumers uninsured.”
The firm lured consumers at websites with names like TrumpCareQuotes.com, the FTC said.
Many of the robocallers are engaged in more straightforward identity theft, Quilici said to me.
“They ask you for personal information to figure out what policy is best for you .. birthdate, address, Social Security number – for eligibility for subsidies.. and then never deliver anything,” he said.
(Let’s pause a second time to see how the confusing design of health insurance enrollment period creates a ‘shooting-fish-in-a-barrel’ opportunity for criminals.)
Quilici is skeptical that federal enforcement actions will have much impact on the scam.
“The temporary shutdown of one scammer by the FCC has done nothing,” he said. “There were 500 millions of these calls last month alone, and many of these are the phishing attempts.”
If you are reading this story, you are probably smart enough to simply hang up on such robocalls (or any robocalls). But I’ll bet someone in your family could be a victim. This time of year, it’s hard to understate the sticker shock that some enrollees feel when they receive their insurance renewal prices. It’s natural for folks looking at $1,000-a-year increases (ahem, me) to search desperately for a cheaper plan. Those folks are easy marks for scammers. Talk to your loved ones, especially vulnerable groups, like older or unemployed friends or family. It’s an awkward conversation — so, how are you getting health insurance next year? — but really important.