Don’t Get To “Yes”

Fraudsters and scammers are wily pieces of crap who are basically the scum of the earth.  But you have to grudgingly give them credit:  you never know what they’re going to think of next, and when it comes to taking criminal advantage of the decency and kindheartedness of many people, they have no equal.

101386023-183418541-1910x1000Consider what police are saying about the latest scam.  You get a phone call out of the blue from a number that your phone identifies as from your area code, making you much more likely to answer it because it could be a friend or family member calling in an emergency from a strange local number.  The person on the other ends starts yakking, and early in the conversation the person says “Can you hear me?”  Most people, of course, will say “yes” — and that starts them on the road to perdition.

Why?  Because your “yes” answer is recorded, and then used to indicate your assent to some unwanted product or service.  And if you try to argue that you never agreed to get that magazine subscription or internet debugging service, the recording of your “yes” answer gets used as evidence that you in fact agreed.  In the worst case, the scammer has your credit card number and uses the “yes” with a third party to authorize charges for goods that the crook gets but you are billed for.

It’s tough, because many of us are trained to be polite, even in response to an unwanted call.  We listen to the pitch about the charitable opportunity or the policeman’s benevolent fund and look for an opportunity to say, “thanks, but no thanks.”  But now the advice from law enforcement is to not say anything — and if you’re asked “Can you hear me?,” hang up immediately.

In this case, you just don’t want to get to “yes.”

The Scrooge Impulse

Last night Kish and I were downtown walking to dinner when we saw a man and three kids who looked to be about 10 approaching.  It was pretty clear he was going to ask us for money, and sure enough he did — mumbling something about needing cash for a hotel room, a variation on the old panhandling line about being a stranger in town who has been unexpectedly stranded and needing help.

I declined.  Sometimes I give money to street people as an act of simple charity, but something about this enconter struck the wrong chord.  Kish, however, went to her purse, fished out a ten-dollar bill, and gave it to the man.  She noticed that the kids weren’t wearing hats or gloves on a chilly evening, whereas I was focused on the man, and I felt like Scrooge.

We then walked a few steps to the restaurant, and one of the young valet parkers came up to us.  “Just so you know, that guy comes by here every night,” he said.  “It really bugs me how he uses those kids as props for his begging.  Maybe it shouldn’t bother me, but it does.”  And then Kish and I went inside and thought and talked about the encounter.

So the man asking for money wasn’t quite Bob Cratchit, and perhaps I wasn’t quite Scrooge.  Or maybe I was, anyway.  The ethics of panhandling and panhandling responses are complicated.  Most homeless groups say you shouldn’t give money directly to beggars, who likely will use it to feed the bad habits that helped to make them homeless in the first place.  If you want to help the homeless, they say, give to organizations that help them end their addictions and destructive tendencies.  But what do you do when confronted by kids without hats and gloves?  The guy may have been running a scam, but I’m not feeling very satisfied about my reaction.

Uncle Sam, The Scooter Sap

Over the weekend the Washington Post carried a terrific article about how fraudsters ripped off Medicare — and through Medicare, the American taxpayer — in the Great Scooter Scam.  It’s another troubling, cautionary tale that shows how good intentions can run awry, how fraudsters are always ready to pounce, and how our ponderous governmental apparatus is just not well-suited to ferreting out fraud.

The fraud scheme grew out of Medicare’s requirement that claims be paid promptly, and the vast scope of coverage that Medicare supplies.  With millions of claims being received, there was no way to check them out before making the required prompt processing decision.  So Medicare’s default approach was to pay claims first, investigate later.  The fraudsters learned this, and rubbed their hands with glee.  But fraudsters can’t perform surgery or other medical care, so how do they take advantage of that gaping vulnerability in the system?  Medical equipment was the answer . . . but the crooks then had to find just the right kind of equipment, where real money could be made.

Ultimately, they realized that scooters and motorized wheelchairs were perfect.  The need for them was plausible, and there was a huge gap between the actual cost of the devices and the inflated amount Medicare would pay.  The fraudsters created elaborate schemes that included “recruiters” who identified seniors to receive the scooters and bogus medical supply companies — and seniors who willingly participated because they thought there were getting a freebie, even if it was something that they didn’t need.  When Medicare changed the rules to require in-person doctor visits to try to stop the fraud, the crooks recruited doctors who were willing to participate in the fraud in exchange for a cut.

The result?  Perfectly able-bodied seniors with wheelchairs, still in their wrapping, gathering dust in their garages or serving as the perch for oversized teddy bears.  Seniors riffing on the Seinfeld episode and having scooter races in their neighborhoods.  And huge amounts of federal money lining the pockets of criminals.

The scope of the fraud is astonishing.  The Medicare system has paid billions for motorized wheelchairs, and they don’t even know how many of the purchases are legitimate.  One recent audit of paid bills showed that 80 percent were improper.  And even after the federal government became aware of the scooter scam, in 1998, it continued to pay billions in phony claims.  Since 1999, Medicare has paid $8.2 billion for 2.7 million motorized wheelchairs and scooters.  In 2003 alone, $964 million was spend on the devices.  These seem like huge numbers, but they are only a blip in the vast Medicare system — which is part of the reason why it took so long to meaningfully tackle the problem.

The Medicare system now says that it has effectively addressed the scooter scam, and the amounts spent on motorized wheelchairs fell to only $190 million in 2013.  Should we have confidence that all of that money — and all of the billions of dollars shelled out for other forms of medical equipment — is being spent in response to legitimate medical needs?  Not really.  The system is too large, oversight is minimal, and there are too many gaps where the fraudsters can take advantage.  And, perhaps most distressingly, there apparently are lots of “recruiters,” doctors, and seniors who apparently are all too willing to participate in a criminal scam so long as they get something out of it.

The Washington Post article about the Great Scooter Scam should be required reading for every Member of Congress who thinks the best way to solve a problem is to create a governmental program that pays out money to address it.

Jackie Chan, And Disgusting Death Hoaxes

If you check your Facebook page, you may see a posting from someone in the Facebook universe reporting that Jackie Chan, the likeable martial arts action hero, died while filming a stunt for a new movie.  According to the posting, he fell twelve stories in the mishap, and you can watch a video of the failed stunt.

Relax, Jackie Chan fans — it’s a hoax.  Chan has dealt with these death hoaxes before, and is alive and well.

Why would someone engage in such a sick hoax?

In this case, it’s not just some disturbed individual.  Instead, its part of an elaborate effort to get your personal information.  If you’re a Jackie Chan fan and you click on the link, the spammers can access your Facebook profile page and post things on your timeline — which means your Facebook page could, in turn, be used to scam your Facebook friends.

It’s appalling how many people are out there, thinking up new ways to try to defraud people and using the good name and popularity of people like Jackie Chan to achieve their illicit aims.  It bears repeating:  be careful what you click on.  If something seems interesting, run a Google search first.  It could save you from fraud issues in the long run.

As for the spammers and their ugly, twisted ilk, I’d like to see Jackie Chan have a few minutes of kung fu fun with their faces.

 

An Unfortunate Air Of Plausibility (Cont.)

It turns out that the “President Obama wants to pay your utility bills” scam isn’t the only government-related scam making the rounds these days.

Now, crooks are taking advantage of the recent Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act in a ruse to try to get our personal information.  According to the Federal Trade Commission, the scammers are calling people, saying they are from the government, and asking for personal information — Social Security numbers, Medicare ID numbers, and credit card and bank account numbers — that they say is needed to implement the law.  The FTC says that if someone from the government calls and asks for your personal information, you should recognize it as a scam and hang up.

Of course, it’s not exactly far-fetched that the government would contact you about your personal information.  We routinely provide such information whenever we file tax returns or complete other forms that the federal government requires from us.  And since the Affordable Care Act says the government will be paying even more attention to our economic activities — such as whether we have appropriate health care insurance — and our health care usage, it’s not implausible that the feds might need our bank account or credit card information.

The FTC says with confidence that the government won’t be making unsolicited requests for information by phone — but isn’t it going to need to collect such information at some point, in order for the law to work?  What happens when an official-looking letter to your home address that purports to come from the federal government asks you fill out a form that provides your confidential financial and personal information, including where you current have your health insurance, and instructs you to mail it to some random P.O. Box in Kansas City, Missouri?  Should we just crumple it up and throw it away?

An Unfortunate Air Of Plausibility

In Cincinnati, and elsewhere, another identity-theft scam is making the works.  Only this time the bogus offer is not to help a Nigerian diplomat, it’s to get money from a phony program supposedly put in place by President Obama.

The emails offer people the opportunity to participate in a program where the federal government will supposedly pay your summer electric bills.  All you need to do is provide your Social Security number and bank routing number, and your bill supposedly will be paid.  Of course, there is no such federal program, and once you provide your Social Security number and bank account information the scammers will empty your account and take you for all you’re worth.

What’s sad about this isn’t that crooks are preying on innocent saps — that’s been happening since the dawn of mankind — but that people are being duped by the ploy because it has the air of plausibility.  With all of the stimulus programs and bailouts over the last four years, wide swathes of people evidently find it entirely believable that the federal government will pay your utility bills, just like it bailed out banks and GM and made stupid loans to companies like Solyndra.

Don’t you find it troubling that rational people could believe that such a program might actually exist?  We’re rapidly becoming a nation of greedy suckers.

Gram Scam

Every grandkid knows that if they are in a pinch and really need money, they can always make a discreet withdrawal from the Bank of Grandma.  Unfortunately, fraudsters have learned that same lesson and are using that knowledge to prey on the elderly and bilk them out of their retirement savings.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has been warning of scams that follow this story line.  The unsuspecting senior citizen receives a frantic phone call from a young person purporting to be their grandchild or some other relation.  The terrified kid is in an awful jam — maybe he needs money to get out of jail, or to pay a spring break hotel bill because his friends skipped town on him — and he’s counting on Grandma or Grandpa to help him out by wiring some money right away.  He didn’t want to call Mom or Dad, because they’ll never forgive him, and he knows Grandma and Grandpa will keep his secret.  And he’ll pay the money back, of course.  The worried grandparent, secretly pleased to be of help, goes to the bank or Western Union to send the money, and they never see that money again.

It’s pathetic, of course, that crooks would consciously try to cheat older people, but they’ve been doing so since the dawn of time.  What’s really heartbreaking is that the defrauded grandparents are so trusting, and have such strong senses of familial obligation, that they are inclined to send thousands of dollars on the basis of a single phone call from a person whose voice they obviously don’t know and who claims to be a relative they haven’t talked to in months.  Perhaps each of us should call the elders of our families — not only to alert them to this scam, but also to re-acquaint them with the sounds of our voices.