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Originally published September 29, 2013 at 5:49 PM | Page modified September 29, 2013 at 6:22 PM

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Beware of health-insurance ID-theft scams, state warns

With the state’s online health-insurance exchange debuting Tuesday, officials are warning consumers to watch for identity-theft scams.

Special to The Seattle Times

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State officials and consumer groups are warning about an expected surge in identity-theft scams to begin with the Oct. 1 launch of the state’s online health-insurance exchange, the Washington Healthplanfinder.

“I think we will see a shift in the kinds of medical identity theft to now include people who get a call offering an opportunity to sign up for the Affordable Care Act,” said Lisa Erwin, senior counsel with the Office of the Attorney General.

According to Erwin, no cases have emerged yet. “But we will see the traditional scams operated in this new arena,” she said. “We’ll see false advertising. We’ll see people telling you that you need to sign up for something that you don’t need. We’ll see people impersonating being a navigator.” A navigator is a person who is trained and certified to help people use the exchange.

Mary Wood, manager of the eligibility section of the Washington Health Care Authority, which manages Medicaid in the state, shares Erwin’s concern.

“I have an elderly mother folks have preyed upon,” Wood said. “So I worry that with so much hype in the media and with all of us going out and talking about it that it would be easy for someone to just call someone else up and say, ‘I can help you with Healthplanfinder and you just have to share some basic information.’ I could see an individual being confused by that.”

While the exchange hasn’t attracted identity thieves yet, scammers have been operating nationally for a long time. James Quiggle, director of communications with the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, an advocacy organization, said consumers should expect them to move into this new territory of opportunity.

“They’ve signed up people for bogus insurance products and have stolen thousands of dollars from victims,” Quiggle said. “The concern is whether this same crooked marketing mentality will lead to malicious [operations] designed solely to steal people’s financial information and identities. People are very confused about what health-care reform means to their lives and how they are going to need to sign up for coverage.”

Christine Arevalo, director of health-care identity management at ID Experts, a consulting firm, warns that in addition to fraudulent websites and email phishing scams, criminals will likely also resort to old-fashioned techniques.

“There have been reports of people calling, the old traditional phone scam,” she says. “The bottom line really is these are crimes of opportunity, so any time there is something happening in the marketplace that affects consumers and creates an element of confusion, they’re going to take the opportunity to prey on people.”

With a consumer’s Social Security number in health-insurance policy information, she said, scammers can do anything from impersonating someone to get needed care to participating in organized crime rings setting up false fronts.

As a result, consumers whose identities are stolen may find their claims turned down when they go for care. And, of course, if scammers get a Social Security number or bank information, they may drain a person’s accounts or open new accounts in the person’s name.

Patrick Marshall is a technology freelance writer in Seattle. This story was produced through a partnership with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent part of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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