To the list of problems plaguing President Barack Obama's health care law, add one more — fraud.
With millions of Americans frustrated and bewildered by the trouble-prone federal website for health insurance, con men and unscrupulous marketers are seizing their chance. State and federal authorities report a rising number of consumer complaints, ranging from deceptive sales practices to identity theft, linked to the Affordable Care Act.
Madeleine Mirzayans was fooled when a man posing as a government official knocked on her door. Barbara Miller and Maevis Ethan were pitched by telemarketers who claimed to work for Medicaid. And Buford Price was almost ensnared by another new trap: websites that look official but are actually bait set by fly-by-night insurance operators.
Some level of fraud or abuse is predictable with any big government program, but now the technical failures troubling the HealthCare.gov website, as well as the law's complexity, threaten to make matters worse. Only a tiny fraction of Americans have been affected so far, but state authorities and the Federal Trade Commission are reviewing the issue aggressively.
"With this changing health insurance landscape, there is a new opportunity for people to take advantage of our residents, and we've seen it starting already," said Kate Abernathy, a spokeswoman at the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance.
While it is difficult to quantify the problem, interviews with authorities in states including California, Florida, Illinois and New York suggest that fraud is a growing worry. Websites are particularly difficult to police.
The most prevalent complaints involve older Americans. Under the law, people age 65 and over, who are on Medicare, do not need to buy supplemental coverage. Nonetheless, some marketers are pushing expensive add-on policies by falsely claiming that such coverage is required, state authorities say. Others are telling people that the law means they need new Medicare cards — not true. And still others are charging fees as high as $100 to "help" people navigate the new insurance landscape.
"We are remaining vigilant, since we anticipated that the law was so complex that scam artists would take advantage of it," said Tom Miller, the attorney general of Iowa.
In New York and Illinois, attorneys general are investigating at least two firms that they suspect of fraud, people briefed on the matter told the New York Times. Since October, attorney general offices in 36 states have been holding conference calls about the emerging dangers every two weeks.