The Social Security Administration has embarked on a plan to protect retirees from having their Social Security numbers stolen: It's issuing to the 44 million Americans on the program new Medicare cards that don't have your Social Security number on them. But the crooks are one step ahead, using widespread ignorance about the plan to launch a series of new cons.
"In any transition like this, scammers will capitalize on the confusion to trick people," said Amy Nofziger, a fraud expert with AARP. "We are already hearing from people on our help line that criminals are calling."
What's happening, what do you need to watch for?
In the past, Medicare used Social Security numbers as a consumer's only medical identity number, and it required seniors to carry their Medicare cards to ensure access to their health care benefits. A 2015 law aimed at protecting seniors from identity theft demanded that Medicare strip Social Security numbers from Medicare cards, replacing this number with a less sensitive identifier.
However, because Medicare covers so many Americans, the law provided a long transition period to help government and health care providers prepare for the change. The final phase is now going into effect. During this phase, which started in April and will last a year, every Medicare recipient will get a new card. Instead of using your Social Security number, the card will have an 11-digit identifier that includes both numbers and letters -- much like the health care cards insurers issue to everyone else.
The new cards will be sent to Medicare recipients automatically, based on a schedule put out by the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services. New Medicare recipients will get the cards first. After that, the cards will go out in waves based on where the recipient lives, with enrollees in Washington, D.C., Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia getting their cards first, closely followed by recipients at the opposite end of the country -- California, Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.
The rest of the country will start getting new cards sometime after June but before April of 2019.
"When you get your new card, shred the old one because that's what has your Social Security number on it," suggests Nofziger.
The cards will be mailed and will automatically transfer your coverage to the new identifying number. You don't have to do anything or pay any fee.
However, consumers have apparently not gotten the message, said Nofziger. AARP polled 800 adults age 65 and over and found that most knew nothing about the law and were confused about whether Medicare would charge them a fee to get a new card. More than half weren't certain whether the government agency would call to verify their identities before providing a new card, according to the survey.
That makes seniors ripe targets for three cons that have already emerged, she added.
In one scam, con artists call seniors asking for a credit card number to pay a $25 processing fee for the new card. In another, crooks ask the senior for identifying information, including her Social Security number. The worst of the three cons urges seniors to provide bank account information so that the crook, posing as a federal employee, can "credit" the senior's account for a bogus balance on her old card.
"The cards are coming. You'll get a new one automatically. You don't have to pay for it. You don't have to verify your identity. You don't have to do anything to transfer your balance from one card to another," said Nofziger. "If anyone calls saying otherwise, they're a crook. Hang up."