With the holidays come new phone scammers

Happily, this season tends to bring out the best in a lot of us; unhappily, it can also bring out the worst in some.

By Mark Harvey

In case any of us are still uncertain after the caloric overdose we characterize as Thanksgiving, the holiday season is upon us.

Happily, this season tends to bring out the best in a lot of us; unhappily, it can also bring out the worst in some. Then, throw in the mass confusion (or uncertainty, or just plain change) associated with the on again/off again distribution of new Medicare numbers to several million of us, and what do we get? Right: bad guys.

So here’s a heads-up on a couple of scams that are making the national rounds, including Western Washington.

This first one is about Medicare, and it relates to suppliers of durable medical equipment (things like leg braces and wheelchairs). The scammers are calling Medicare beneficiaries, presenting themselves as “from Medicare,” and offering knee or back braces at no cost to you, because Medicare will pay for it in full.

So, some beneficiaries have provided their Medicare numbers (“new” or “old” Medicare numbers, it doesn’t matter because right now, both are operative), and bingo! In a few days, boxes arrive with braces from two different companies.

This is what’s known in the biz as “Medicare abuse” — providing stuff or services that were never ordered and, often, not medically necessary, so Medicare just got ripped off. Let’s be clear: First, Medicare being ripped off doesn’t help us; and second, the bad guys now have your Medicare number and are off to the races!

And did these Medicare beneficiaries accrue any cost from acquiring said equipment? Maybe. Probably.

As an additional FYI, these scammers are appearing to target only those of us who have “original” Medicare, as Medicare Advantage Plans require prior authorization for this stuff. Since there are very few Advantage Plans available in our little corner of the planet, most of us are targets, so beware.

Folks are encouraged to write down the phone number, if they have caller ID, and the name of the “agent” and company name, then hang up. Don’t give them anything! Then call 800-562-6900 to report it.

Here’s another one, but this one is about Social Security, and it’s happening all across the country. This is a “spoofing” scam, meaning the number that shows up on your called ID is not the actual number that the scammer is calling from.

What happens is, the phone rings and you see 800-772-1213 on the caller ID. That is the actual national customer service number for the Social Security Administration. (Yes, there are folks who actually recognize that number!) Secure in the knowledge that you’re being called by the real Social Security Administration, you answer the phone.

The conversation is with an “SSA employee,” stating that SSA doesn’t have all of your personal information (like, Social Security number) … or that SSA needs additional info so your Social Security benefit can be increased … or that SSA will terminate benefits unless the information is provided.

So you provide the info — and, once again, the bad guys are destined for elaborate holidays, because they’ve just gotten all they need to create numerous accounts on your nickel. Ouch.

Think about it: Social Security doesn’t have your Social Security number? Really??

But I don’t want to be critical of folks who have been victimized, because I understand that when you’re on the phone with somebody who sounds and acts official (plus, the legit number is showing on your called ID screen), it seems obligatory and safe to give them what they want.

What could you do, in that situation? Just hang up. Now, I’m not going to tell you it’s absolutely impossible that SSA would ever call you (unusual, but not impossible), but they would never call you about stuff like this. Besides, what’s the worst thing that could happen if you just hang up? You’re going to offend the entire Social Security Administration? Unlikely. And if they really need something from you, trust me: They’ll find another way to contact you.

Never, never, never give out personal info like this on the phone, unless you are the one who initiated the call! If you’re worried about it, you could always call SSA (after all, you have their number on your caller ID) and ask them if they’re looking for you for something, but don’t be surprised if what you hear is “Uh… no.…” (I would advise against calling the CIA with the same inquiry. Besides, I don’t know the CIA’s customer service number.)

Get it? Who needs this kind of bummer at the holidays? If a personal testimonial is helpful, I routinely hang up on a vast number of calls about six seconds into the conversation. I don’t feel guilty about it, and I’m still here.

Of course, the CIA hasn’t called… recently.…

Mark Harvey is the director of information and assistance for the Olympic Area Agency on Aging. He can be reached by email at harvemb@dshs.wa.gov; by phone at 360-532-0520 in Aberdeen, 360-942-2177 in Raymond, or 360-642-3634; or through Facebook at Olympic Area Agency on Aging-Information & Assistance.