WASHINGTON, D.C. – Scam artists are preying on older people's fears by peddling fake tests for the coronavirus to Medicare recipients, a federal law enforcement agency warned on Monday.
And moving separately on another law enforcement priority, President Donald Trump signed an order directing a crackdown on large-scale hoarding that's intended to create shortages of critical goods and drive prices up.
Alerting seniors to fraud, the Health and Human Services inspector general's office said it has seen marketing schemes rapidly pivot to offering tests for COVID-19 and “Senior Care Packages” with hand sanitizer or even tout a vaccine, which doesn't exist. Some marketers falsely claim that Trump has ordered that seniors get tested.
It's all a trick to get personal information that can be used to bill federal and state health programs, said Christian Schrank, assistant inspector general for investigations.
“It's a straight-up ruse to get your Medicare number or your Social Security number under the guise of having a test kit or a sanitary kit sent to you,” Schrank said. Often the caller will hang up as soon as that number is provided.
Low-income Medicaid recipients also are being targeted.
The sales pitches are coming via telemarketing calls, robocalls, social media posts, emails and door-to-door visits, Schrank explained.
As legitimate businesses close their doors and send workers home to comply with social distancing measures, fraud operators have ramped up recruiting for their call centers, Schrank said.
For seniors, the consequences can be long term. Health care fraud is one of the most prevalent forms of identity theft.
Once a person's Medicare information is in the hands of fraudsters, it can be used repeatedly to bill for unwanted goods and services. That can create problems if a Medicare enrollee ever does need them.
Among the schemes reported to authorities:
— In Florida, seniors have been contacted by fraudsters claiming that Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have mandated they get tested and that their Medicare number is required.
— A scheme in the Midwest offers a “Senior Care Package” that includes hand sanitizer. “As we know, it's very difficult for beneficiaries to get out to the store,” Schrank said. “At this time when seniors are searching for answers, these individuals are preying on their desire to speak with somebody.”
— Several online operations are offering coronavirus vaccines, when none has been developed and approved. At the White House press conference Monday, Trump said federal authorities had already shut down a website selling “a totally fake vaccine." Schrank said, “The first time you hear about a vaccine, it's not going to be through an email or a telemarketing call.”
Federal and state law enforcement officials have set up a working group to share information on the quickly evolving scams and route leads to the agencies best equipped to investigate. The phone number for the HHS inspector general's hotline is 800-HHS-TIPS, and the National Center for Disaster Fraud hotline is at 866-720-5721.
Anti-fraud experts say seniors should just hang up on unsolicited sales calls.
Following Trump to the White House briefing room podium, Attorney General William Barr said the crackdown on hoarding will target excessive stockpiling of personal protective equipment that is needed by medical personnel.
“If you have a big supply of toilet paper in your house, this is not something you have to worry about," said Barr.
The Justice Department has already launched investigations into people who are hoarding supplies and price gouging, said Barr. Investigators will go after people who are “hoarding these goods on an industrial scale for the purpose of manipulating the market.”
Barr says the executive order allowed the president to designate some items as “scarce” and prohibits people from stockpiling the much-needed supplies.
“If you are sitting on a warehouse with surgical masks, you will be hearing a knock on your door,” Barr said.
Barr said no specific items have been identified yet and the Justice Department will work with Health and Human Services to enforce the president’s order.
For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. Worldwide, more than 375,000 cases have been reported, and while most people recover in weeks, more than 16,000 people have died.
Associated Press writer Michael Balsamo contributed to this report.