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Phone scam targets Medicare recipients

CHARLESTON, W.Va. --  West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw's office warned state seniors Thursday about a new identity theft scheme involving bogus calls from someone threatening to terminate their Medicare coverage.

 "I want everyone to be highly suspicious of telephone calls from individuals demanding bank account or Social Security numbers," McGraw said in a press release.

Officials said they began receiving reports of the suspicious calls from two senior-oriented consumer hotlines earlier this week.

On Thursday, ElderWatch, a consumer protection hotline operated by the AARP Foundation in partnership with the Attorney General's office, received calls from people in Monongalia, Marion, Harrison and Barbour counties reporting similar threatening calls.

That led the Attorney General's Office to sound the alarm.

"There was a burst of it in north central West Virginia," said Assistant Attorney General Matt Stonestreet. "Whenever ElderWatch gets that many calls at once and they're reporting the same thing, it raises red flags."

A representative from a bogus company tells the senior they are calling on behalf of Medicare. The caller claims the government is preparing to issue new Medicare cards and they need to make sure they have the person's proper information.

The caller asks the person to provide their Social Security and checking account numbers. If they don't turn those over, the caller says the person won't receive the new Medicare card and will lose their health care coverage.

"They were basically being threatened that their Medicare coverage would drop out unless they updated their card and gave them their information," Stonestreet said.

Susan Lefew, program coordinator with the AARP Foundation's Senior Medicare Patrol, said reports of the fraudulent calls continued through the day Thursday and began coming in from other parts of the state.

"Just today I've gotten a call from Kanawha County and one from Mercer County, so it looks like it may be starting to spread," she said.

Lefew said some people noted the caller ID information and it showed a pattern.

"They all seem to be coming from area code 409, which is in Texas," she said.

Stonestreet said identity theft schemes like this are known as "phishing" scams. They can be executed over the phone or through email or text message.

Callers typically cast a wide net.

"They just call in a very large volume," Stonestreet said. "They can get phone numbers online or just see what phone numbers are active and make a bunch of calls."

He said phishing scammers usually try to get a person to turn over personal information in one of two ways.

The first, like the Medicare scam, presents a potential victim with the threat of losing something of value, like health care coverage.

"That's just to emotionally coerce people into providing sensitive information that they wouldn't normally provide over the phone to a stranger," Stonestreet said.

The other method is the promise of a gift or reward if the information is given.  

This happened recently when scammers sent mass text messages to thousands of people in the state telling them they had won $1,000 Target gift cards. The scam promised each person a gift card if they went online and turned over some personal information.

Stonestreet said consumers should be mindful that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

He also said consumers should remember that government agencies and banking institutions already have personal information on file and would never ask for it over the phone.

"If anyone attempts to contact you asking for that, then you should be very suspicious that it could be a scam," he said.

Lefew said the best thing to do is end the call as soon as possible.

"These folks are really good at what they do and getting you to turn over your personal and financial information," she said.

"We just advise that they hang up and if they're able to, take down the number the scam artist is calling from so we can give that to the proper authorities."

To report a suspicious call, contact AARP's Senior Medicare Patrol in Charleston at 800-799-4638, ElderWatch at 800-799-4638 or the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division at 800-368-8808.

Lefew and Stonestreet said the reports so far were only from people who realized the calls were bogus. Both said they had yet to hear from anyone who fell for the scam and suffered financially.

But they fear that will change.  

"Once we do this alert, we could get (victims) because right now someone who fell for it doesn't know they've fallen victim of a scam," Stonestreet said.

He said victims should first call police to file a report.

Victims also should contact all three credit reporting agencies - Equifax, Experian and TransUnion - and request a security freeze. That will prevent anyone from opening a new line of credit in the victim's name.

Victims also need to contact their bank or credit card carrier to notify them their account may be compromised.

Contact writer Jared Hunt at jared.hunt@dailymail.com or 304-348-5148.


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