Bessie Bell, 72, knew better than to fall for a phone call claiming she had won the lottery.
“I said, ‘OK, I’m busy right now.’ And I hung up the phone,” said Bell, who lives in Detroit.
But the savvy senior admits she got tricked into handing over her bank account information to a stranger on the phone this year when someone up to no good called about her Medicare coverage.
“They prey on older people — people that are worried,” Bell said.
That’s why senior advocates are concerned about a string of reports about a Medicare card-related scam in at least 15 states, including Michigan, West Virginia, Tennessee, Illinois, New Jersey and California.
Consumers are regularly warned never to provide personal information if they receive an unsolicited phone call or email and someone asks to update or confirm account numbers.
The problem, of course, is that con artists create new pitches, based on the latest worries. And — no surprise here — health care and the cost of prescription drugs remain a huge concern for elderly people and others.
“It’s sort of reasonable and logical that people would be all ears,” said Sally Hurme, project adviser for the AARP Education and Outreach Health team in Washington, D.C.
The Medicare pitch can vary. But lately, Medicare beneficiaries have been told that they need to verify information to receive a new Medicare card. Scammers cooked up a new “Preferred Medicare” card that somehow would be used with the original red, white and blue Medicare card.
In Tennessee, some seniors reported that they were targeted after Superstorm Sandy with a pitch saying Medicare cards had to be reissued because of the storm. And the scammers needed to “verify your account information.” The scammers said they needed bank account numbers to pay for the new plastic cards, which they said cost $40 each.
Anita Salustro, who coordinates the Senior Medicare Patrol in Michigan, part of the Michigan Medicare/Medicaid Assistance Program, said what’s particularly confounding to some seniors is that the callers have routing numbers for specific banks. Those numbers make callers seem more legitimate.
Despite many warnings, telemarketing remains a popular way to scam older and younger consumers out of their personal information.
Last year, millions of people were called about diabetic test strips and asked to verify their personal information, such as Medicare ID numbers — which are Social Security numbers, Salustro said.
“This year, the scam is Medicare cards. Next year, who knows?” she said.
Hurme said she is concerned that scammers could build pitches around the federal Affordable Care Act as uninsured people shop for health coverage later this year. Copycat sites could be created that look like legitimate websites related to the new marketplace.
Another area of fraud: Fake online pharmacies, which offer prescription drugs at prices too good to be true. The drugs sold might be old or dangerous, Hurme said. One way to check out the online pharmacies: See the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy site at NABP.net.
Hurme said Medicare-related scammers might want someone else’s ID numbers so they can steal their good credit, obtain free medical care or bill Medicare for fraudulent services.
“The fraudsters are really very clever,” Hurme said.
Bell, the Detroit senior, said the caller who phoned her in January had her billing address, asked her where she banked and then told her the routing number for that bank.
“All of this makes you comfortable that you’re speaking with someone from Medicare,” Bell said.
Yet routing numbers from banks are easily obtained.
It’s the bank account information — and where you bank — that scammers need.
Bell said she gave her bank account information to the caller, who then said he would put her on a recorded line where she needed to repeat that information. She said she thought better of that the second time and didn’t give the account number.
She contacted her bank and has been monitoring her account.
Bell said seniors can often be under stress while taking care of a sick spouse or relative, and they may not be at the top of their game.
It never hurts to hear one more reminder of what not to do. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. even rolled out some warnings last year for young adults and teens about how to avoid fraud.
Some of those tips: Con artists can pose as businesses offering awards, jobs or other opportunities. Don’t be pressured into making a quick decision and turning over bank account information.
Don’t leave tax returns and paperwork connected to those returns in plain view.
Take time to consider whether the call is realistic by its nature. If there are changes to a federal program, for example, the government is not going to phone everyone.
Before taking any action, call your doctor, the drugstore, the AARP or others in the know about senior issues.
Even so, experts and those who fell for such tricks say the scammers can sound sincere and the spam emails look realistic.
“They come on like they know so much about you,” Bell said.
Here are some ways to avoid being duped:
» Contact your bank or other financial institution immediately if you make a mistake and give out personal information such as your Social Security number or bank account information.
» Think twice about disclosing to a stranger where you worship or shop. A fraudster might begin going to the places you mention to try to take further advantage of you.
» Watch all financial statements carefully. Go online to check recent activity.
» Write down details of calls that seem like scams and report them to local law enforcement, said Dianne Shovely, vice president of fraud services for Comerica Bank in Auburn Hills, Mich. Report any unauthorized transactions promptly. Do not send or give anyone money if you receive an email or telemarketing call.
» Obtain a free copy of your annual credit report at www. annualcreditreport.com or by calling 877-322-8228.
» You can ask nationwide consumer credit-reporting companies to place a fraud alert in your file if you are a victim of identity theft. To place a fraud alert in your file, contact one of the three credit-reporting companies: Equifax, 877-576-5734, https://www.alerts.equifax.com; Experian, 888-397-3742, https://www.experian.com/fraud; and TransUnion, 800-680-7289, www.transunion.com.