A Consumer Action News Alert • November 2021
  It's a 'miracle'?  

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says that "health fraud trades on false hope" by promising quick cures for a variety of medical conditions. At "best" they are a waste of money. At worst, they do harm: Fraudulent health products can have dangerous, even deadly, interactions with prescribed medicines. And those who believe false wellness claims may avoid seeing a doctor. Also, unapproved treatments, unlike legitimate and necessary medical treatments, are rarely covered by health insurance. We know that many people adhere to "alternative medicine" practices, and some approaches may indeed offer benefits, especially in combination with conventional health care (but check with your doctor). Still, it pays to be alert. Last month the FTC announced it would send refunds totaling more than $1.1 million to 84,847 consumers nationwide who bought three supplements (Neurocet, Regenify, and Resetigen-D) that were "deceptively marketed" to alleviate pain and health conditions related to aging (wow, if only there were a pill for that!). If you suspect you've purchased a product that's made false claims about its efficacy in treating medical conditions, submit a complaint to the FTC. By flagging suspicious products and treatments, you might be helping not just yourself, but many others.

  Not so 'special'  

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) is warning about scams that could trick you out of money and personal information during the special enrollment period for Affordable Care Act healthcare coverage (Nov. 1 to Jan. 15) and Medicare (Oct. 15 to Dec. 7). The official website for signing up for Affordable Care Act insurance is Healthcare.gov; Medicare.gov is the official site for Medicare beneficiaries. Dubious "brokers" and scammers use web addresses that are similar to those of the government sites to trick consumers. The BBB says its ScamTracker gets many reports about fraudsters claiming to be government representatives who can help you navigate your Medicare or Affordable Care Act options. It says scammers might claim to be a "healthcare benefits advocate" or "healthcare navigator" who can enroll you in a better, cheaper program with all the same services--if you just provide some personal information. Or, callers may try to scare you by claiming your coverage will end if you don't act immediately to "update" your personal information. Sometimes, scammers will offer free gifts, health screenings, or other deals in exchange for providing your Medicare ID number or other personally identifiable information. Be especially cautious if you receive threatening calls saying they require quick action or immediate payment. Don't fall for it! Loyal SCAM GRAM readers know that sharing personal information (such as Social Security or Medicare ID numbers) with people you don't know can open you up to identity theft.

  Bad treatment  

Rogue Rx. Our friends at the National Consumers League's Fraud.org website are working to educate consumers about counterfeit prescription drugs. They say counterfeit drugs on the market today are causing harm and even death--explaining that counterfeit drugs are fake copies of real, legitimate medicines that often look identical to the real thing (same size, shape and color) but may contain an incorrect dose, the wrong active ingredient, or no active ingredients at all. There are other risks as well, like theft of buyers' personal information. Fraud.org suggests that one way to avoid "fake Rx" scams is to purchase medication only from legitimate websites. How do you tell? You can search for the seller's web address in the "Safe Pharmacy" directory offered by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP), a nonprofit organization that works with the state boards of pharmacy to protect the public from "pharmacies" selling counterfeit drugs. The search results will indicate if the seller site is safe or if it may pose a risk to buyers. Some eye-opening stats from the NABP: It has identified more than 30,000 websites that fail to comply with the association's patient safety and pharmacy practice standards, or even applicable laws; nearly 95% of websites offering prescription-only drugs online operate illegally; and 89% of illegal online pharmacies reviewed by NABP did not require a prescription for the sale of prescription-only medicine. Yikes!

Delivering a bogus policy. Last month's SCAM GRAM focused on "affinity fraud"--scams that prey upon members of identifiable groups, such as ethnic communities. We thought we'd heard it all, but this case brought by the U.S. District Attorney's Office, Southern District, against a thieving couple in Chula Vista, California, reaches a new low. Melissa Alvarez Torres and Jose Luis Olmos Hernandez were sentenced in federal court to 33 months and 40 months in prison, respectively, for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from pregnant women and using the money to buy multiple properties in Mexico, including a beachfront home in Nayarit. The couple pled guilty to running a healthcare fraud scheme to sell bogus insurance to pregnant women, and that scheme cost the women their hard-earned money and caused more than $1 million in taxpayer losses to California's Medi-Cal Access Program (MCAP), which provides working, middle-income California families access to affordable maternity and postnatal care. The couple used Facebook to fraudulently market "insurance" under the name Seguros Americanos Embarazo (American Pregnancy Insurance), targeting pregnant women in Mexico who held work or tourist visas permitting them to enter the U.S., and falsely claiming that the insurance would permit these women to legally give birth here without risk to their visas. These scammers charged each woman between $1,200 and $3,000 for the so-called insurance. The couple, in turn, simply fabricated MCAP applications for the women, claiming they were legal residents. A multiagency investigation unraveled the scam. So why are we telling you this? A few reasons: 1) If a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is; 2) Just because someone speaks your language or goes to your church--or whatever you have in common--doesn't mean they have your best interests in mind; and 3) Check, check and triple-check any company, offer or opportunity before plunking down your money.


Pull the plug. Local power companies nationwide are warning customers about a "pretexting" scam in which callers falsely claim to be with the utility. Typically, calls to customers warn that their bill is past due and their power will be shut off within the hour unless they make an immediate payment, which, conveniently, can be made with an e-gift card, MoneyPak® Card, or through a payment app such as Venmo or Zelle. These are untraceable--and typically nonrefundable--ways that scammers prefer to receive their ill-gotten gains. Long Island, New York, reporter Karl Grossman wrote a story about his personal experience with such a caller pretending to be with the local power company, PSEG. "The caller ID read as the phone rang: PSEG, LONG ISLA," Grossman wrote, revealing to readers a common scam technique: to "spoof" caller ID numbers. "Our PSEG electric service, the caller advised, would be cut off in a half-hour to 45 minutes because of non-payment. I asked, clearly regarding this as a scam, how I was to know this was really PSEG Long Island? I was told I would be switched to the 'manager'. The 'manager' got on the phone, identified herself as with PSEG Long Island. I identified myself as a journalist highly suspicious about the call... The 'manager' immediately slammed down her phone." We've seen news reports about this scam all across the country, from the East to West coasts. If you get a call like this, just hang up!

No forgiveness for these scammers. With the recent announcement of changes to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) Program, thousands of previously ineligible borrowers may see their debts forgiven. But scammers read the news, too, and even in anticipation, they've been dispatching robocalls, texts and letters to lure student loan borrowers into their web with false promises of student debt elimination. These companies are not affiliated with U.S. Department of Education--it would not call you about loan forgiveness. You need to contact the department of your own volition and apply for PSLF, if you're eligible. But these companies, nonetheless, claim to "work with the U.S. Department of Education," or they say they are "consumer advocacy groups." In an effort to appear legitimate, some of these companies may even include your loan balance information--don't fall for it. The Education Department and its federal loan servicers do not charge fees to help borrowers with their student loans...period! If you're asked to pay an upfront or maintenance fee, you're not dealing with the Education Department, so don't share any information about yourself or your loans. To verify companies that work with the government to provide student loan services, check this list.

Thank you for patiently waiting. Cybersecurity firm Tripwire recently featured an interesting blog post about how scammers "groom" victims. Writer Martina Dove explains that grooming is a practice used by scammers to "establish a connection with a person to perpetrate a crime against them." This is a "long game," in which they "carefully orchestrate events, sometimes using other actors" to convince the mark. The technique is very common in romance scams and may be an element in other financial crimes, such as those promising big returns from an investment. Dove writes that psychic and clairvoyant scams often use the technique, and that recently bereaved individuals and women may be especially vulnerable, becoming emotionally dependent on the psychic and paying increasingly higher amounts for additional consultations. The article concludes with a great point: "Scammers rely on secrecy, so first thing you can do to protect yourself is to confide in a good friend or a family member and ask them to give you advice."

Dig before you give. The Internal Revenue Service recently reminded us that you can check out if a charity is legitimate using its Tax Exempt Organization search tool, which can be used to check an organization's eligibility to receive tax-deductible charitable contributions.

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