Your phone rings from an unidentified caller, but you answer anyway. A voice on the other end offers to help you to navigate Obamacare changes, update your Medicare card, or offer to sell you insurance that would make you compliant under the new health reform law.

It sounds like it could be a phone call from the federally-funded healthcare reform navigators, enlisted by state governments to educate the public about the health insurance exchanges that will debut on October 1. But chances are it's a scam.

Since the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was signed into law in 2010, scammers have taken advantage of the upcoming changes by posing as representatives of Medicare or insurance companies, tricking trusting consumers into offering their social security number, bank account routing numbers, and other private information.

With the health insurance exchanges, a major hallmark of the healthcare reform law, less than 80 days away from opening, scams are on the rise again. The Federal Trade Commission says it received 1,100 complaints about healthcare-related scams in May alone.

"This is the huge, new government program. There's no doubt in my mind that the fraudsters view it as an opportunity to rip people off," Lois Greisman, associate director for the Federal Trade Commission's division of marketing practices, told the McClatchy Washington News Bureau.

A widely reported scam involves fake Medicare representatives calling seniors, who are more likely to answer the phone, asking for personal information so that the senior's Medicare coverage will not be disrupted or so that the senior will receive a rebate. The Affordable Care Act will not disrupt Medicare service, and the government does not permit rebates. Other premises for scams involve selling an "Obamacare card" (no such thing exists) or threats to throw people in jail unless they buy health insurance.

Taking Advantage Of A Confusing Healthcare Environment

New legislation has long been a target for scammers, but the Affordable Care Act is an especially fertile locus of fraudulent activity. The changes are wide reaching, affecting millions of Americans. Not only does the health reform act have several components, many Americans still do not understand how the Affordable Care Act will affect them, based on recent polling.

To add to the confusion, state governments, with the help of federal funds, are actually enlisting the help of advertisers, translators, and consumer support groups to help educate consumers about the upcoming changes and new benefits to the uninsured. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has yet to finalize rules about these legally tasked navigators, but it is possible that these groups will contact people via telemarketing and unsolicited emails.

How does one tell the difference between a legitimate government-sponsored outreach navigator and a scam artist? Although rules for the health reform education and outreach have yet to be finalized, here are some general rules to follow in order to protect yourself from fraud.

Tips For Avoiding Healthcare Scams

  1. Don't give away any personal information over phone or email. If a caller is asking for your social security number or bank account information, hang up. "It's a scam. Government organizations and the legitimate groups you do business with have the information they need," according to the Federal Trade Commission.
  2. Be suspicious of scary language. Some scammers will use a fear-tactic approach, saying that you'll be thrown into jail or your coverage will be disrupted if you don't comply with their demands. Despite the health insurance mandate, nobody will be thrown into jail for not having insurance, and Medicare and existing plans will continue to operate as usual.
  3. Be suspicious of "Obamacare cards" or any use of the word "Obamacare." The term was popularized mainly by political parties who oppose the law, but has no official meaning or use in the health reform legislation.
  4. Beware of callers to sell health insurance directly over the phone. While the main intention behind the Exchanges is to offer people more options for health insurance plans, legitimate outreach workers backed by the government would educate people about these options and how to access subsidies; they're not allowed to push people to buy certain plans as a salesman would.
  5. Check in with State Insurance Departments or Better Business Bureau. These organizations, in conjunction with the Federal Trade Commission, are tasked with investigating potential scams. They could save you and would-be victims from crime.

Still unsure? Don't be afraid to hang up. At worst, if it is a call from a legitimate group or the government, there will be a way to follow up. At best, you just saved yourself from being scammed.