Be wary of offers for free medical equipment

By Tyler Russell

Don’t fall for the free durable medical equipment scam that’s making the rounds among senior citizens.

Tyler Russell

The Better Business Bureau is hearing from consumers — more than 200 since the first of the year — who have been targeted by scammers offering “free” back or knee braces.

Here’s how the scam works: seniors get a call saying they qualify for a back brace or a knee brace — completely paid for by Medicare.

The scammers may pretend to be from Medicare, or they may claim to be the maker of durable medical equipment. They tell seniors they qualify for the equipment for free, and they repeatedly call until seniors relent and allow them to submit an order to their doctor for the equipment. Or seniors may say no, but the company ships the brace anyway. Other times the equipment just shows up on their doorstep, and Medicare receives the bill. Often, consumers have a difficult time returning the unnecessary equipment.

By law, no one is allowed to make unsolicited calls to consumers about durable medical equipment. If they do, it’s Medicare fraud. And taxpayers foot the bill for all the unwanted products. If you get such a call, just hang up.

Here’s how to protect yourself and Medicare from durable medical equipment fraud:

> Refuse and report anyone offering “free” equipment, supplies or services in exchange for your Medicare number.

> Know that Medicare medical suppliers are not allowed to make unsolicited telephone calls or send emails to sell equipment unless the customer has done business with them in the past 15 months

> Never sign a blank form from a health care provider or equipment supplier.

> Always read your Medicare summary notice or explanation of benefits paperwork to look for any charges for equipment you do not need or did not receive.

> Protect your Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security cards; keep them in a safe place (not your wallet) and only get them out when you are going to see a health care provider.

> Report scams to the Medicare fraud hotline: 800-633-4227 (800-MEDICARE).

Avoid scams by taking these precautions:

> Never send money to someone you have never met face-to-face. Seriously, just don’t ever do it. And don’t do it if they ask to use wire transfer, a prepaid debit card, or a gift card — those cannot be traced and are as good as cash.

> Don’t click on links or open attachments in unsolicited email. Links can download malware onto a computer and/or steal your identity. Be cautious even with email that looks familiar; it could be fake.

> Don’t believe everything you see. Scammers are great at mimicking official seals, fonts and other details. Just because a website or email looks official does not mean that it is. Even caller ID can be faked.

> Don’t buy online unless the transaction is secure. Make sure the website has “https” in the address bar (the extra “s” is for “secure”) and a small lock icon appears. Even then, the site could be shady. Check out the company first at bbb.org. Read reviews about the quality of the merchandise and make sure you are not buying cheap and/or counterfeit goods.

> Be extremely cautious when dealing with anyone you’ve met online. Scammers use dating websites, Craigslist, social media and many other sites to reach potential targets. They can quickly feel like a friend or even a romantic partner, but that is part of the con to establish trust.

> Never share personally identifiable information with someone who has contacted you unsolicited, whether it’s over the phone, via email, on social media, even at the front door. This includes banking and credit card information, birth date and Social Security numbers.

> Don’t be pressured to act immediately. Scammers typically try to make you think something is scarce or a limited time offer. They want to push you into action before you have time to think or to discuss it with a family member, friend or financial advisor. High-pressure sales tactics also are used by some legitimate businesses, but it’s never a good idea to make an important decision quickly.

> Use secure, traceable transactions when making payments for goods, services, taxes and debts. Do not pay by wire transfer, prepaid money card, gift card or other non-traditional payment method. Say no to cash-only deals, high pressure sales tactics, high upfront payments, overpayments and handshake deals without a contract.

> Whenever possible, work with local businesses which have proper identification, licensing and insurance, especially contractors who will be coming into your home or anyone dealing with your money or sensitive information. Check them out at bbb.org to see what other consumers have experienced.

> Be cautious about what you share on social media and consider only connecting with people you already know. Be sure to use privacy settings on all social media and online accounts. Imposters often get information about their targets from their online interactions and can make themselves sound like a friend or family member because they know so much about you.

To report a scam, go to BBB.org/ScamTracker. 

To learn more about health care and Medicare scams, go to BBB.org/HealthCareScam.

» Tyler Russell is the marketplace manager for the Better Business Bureau Northwest and Pacific.

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