Randy Meier

RANDY MEIER

Seniors vs. Crime Columnist

Many readers called over the last several years to report calls offering “free” medical knee or back orthotic braces. In the last couple of months, two readers reported actually receiving such braces, without consulting anyone, or authorizing such a transaction. 

In March 2019, I wrote about Junie, who received a back brace out of the blue, and later learned someone charged $2,000 to Medicare under her name for the device.

I talked to another man, who strangely enough, lived a block from Junie. He showed me six different braces he received in March, without talking to any doctors or ordering anything. The medical supply company charged his Medicare account $4,000 for these braces. 

But it seems things came to a head with this Medicare scam. On April 9th, the FBI announced what they called a “disruption” to one of the largest Medicare frauds in U.S. history. The FBI described an international fraud ring bilking Medicare of $1.2 billion over a five-year period. This happened by billing Medicare for unneeded medical equipment, mostly all these braces. 

From what I read, this scheme was cooked up by owners and executives of telemedicine companies, which the feds called “purported” telemedicine companies. These executives enlisted international call centers in the Philippines and Latin American to recruit patients, which they did through television, online ads, and telemarketing.

The call centers persuaded the patients to accept “free or low-cost” braces, whether needed or not. Telemedicine companies paid kickbacks to doctors to write phony prescriptions for the braces. The prescriptions went to 130 different medical equipment companies, which then billed Medicare. 

The FBI called their investigation Operation Brace Yourself (that’s far too clever). It resulted in the indictment of 24 people, including three doctors, and Medicare stopped any business with the 130 medical equipment companies. Let’s hope this is more than a disruption to this scheme, and rather it’s the end of it.

This whole deal is a pretty good lesson on why Medicare beneficiaries need to check over their Medicare summary notices closely. And if you see something you did not authorize, report it to Medicare. If you received braces or other medical equipment you didn’t order, check your notices or your insurance explanation of benefits. If someone is charging Medicare for services or equipment on your behalf, it means they know your Medicare number. 

How did they get it? Many of these telemarketing calls are designed to persuade patients to give out their Medicare numbers. You need to guard your Medicare number as closely as any other bit of personal information, like your social security number, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, or even your birthdate. If you see a charge you did not authorize — or for a service you did not receive — report it to Medicare as fraud. The number to call is on your Medicare summary notice.

ROBO-CALLS UPDATE

There’s some news to share on the increasingly frustrating topic of robo-calls.

If you suspected we’re getting more and more of these in our area, you are absolutely right. Consumer Reports published a comprehensive article on robo-calls in their May 2019 issue. The magazine tells us the robo-call industry is churning out exponentially more calls every year. The number of calls from 2017 to 2018 went up almost 57 percent in just that one year. In fact, they project in 2019, 45% of all calls going to cellphones will be scam calls. 

What’s happening to account for these increases? Technology. Robo-callers can now very cheaply auto-dial thousands of numbers world-wide by using VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol, meaning through a computer) in mere seconds. And by cheaply, I mean someone can make a million calls for $2,000. This is getting dramatically cheaper all the time, so we see a lot more of it.

Solutions up to this point are ineffective. Scammers ignore the National Do Not Call Registry. Caller ID services are less and less reliable due to widespread “call spoofing.” Crooked telemarketers base their call centers overseas, making them out of reach of US regulators and more difficult to prosecute. Call-blocking apps proved to be less than 100 percent effective. A Consumer Reports survey recorded only 35 percent of these app users found them helpful.

But Consumer Reports offers some hope of improvement. Legislation called the TRACED Act is in the Senate, seeking to increase fines for illegal robo-calling. Even better, the Federal Communications Commission expects the big phone carriers to start using a system named with a long acronym, STIR/SHAKEN. 

 “STIR/SHAKEN will help reduce spoofed robo-calls by assigning a digital fingerprint to calls,” Consumer Reports said. “That fingerprint allows carriers to immediately know the real identity of the caller when a call passes through any part of the system on its way to your device.” 

If that works as advertised, then phone carriers can quickly figure out illegal calls, and shut down the caller, by automatically blocking those calls.

Will this work? Stay tuned. In the meantime, I encourage people bothered by these calls to contact their phone carrier, to see what they offer in the line of call blocking. If you use a smart phone, block all the phony numbers yourself. If you get a robo-call, report it to the Do Not Call Registry. They use these reports to create blacklists of numbers which get blocked by phone carriers.