Genetic-testing scam targets seniors and rips off Medicare

The 86-year-old woman in rural Utah doesn’t usually answer solicitations from strangers, she said, but the young couple who knocked on her front door seemed so nice. Before long, she had handed over her Medicare and Social Security numbers — and allowed them to swab her cheek to collect her DNA.

She is among scores of older Americans who have been targeted in a scam that uses DNA tests to defraud Medicare or steal personal information. Fraudsters find their victims across the country through cold calls, door knocking, email, Facebook ads and Craigslist. They also troll low-income housing complexes, senior centers, health fairs and antique shops. Sometimes they offer ice cream, pizza or $100 gift cards. Some callers claim to work for Medicare, according to a fraud alert issued July 19 by the Federal Trade Commission.

The woman in Utah said she didn’t know the purpose of the DNA test she submitted to this month — “I’m too old to remember” — but the visit troubled her for several nights, she said.

“I’d lie awake thinking about it, saying, ‘You fool, you shouldn’t have done that.’” (She spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted by other scams.)

In interviews with Kaiser Health News, seniors around the country reported feeling betrayed, exposed and confused.

Capitalizing on the growing popularity of genetic testing — and fears of terminal illness — scammers are persuading seniors to take two types of genetic screenings that are covered by Medicare Part B, according to experts familiar with the schemes. The tests aim to detect their risk for cancer or medication side effects.

The scammers bill Medicare for the tests. The patients, who might never receive any results, typically pay nothing. But they risk compromising personal information and family medical history. And taxpayers foot the bill for tests that may be unnecessary or inappropriate.

Scammers can really cash in: Medicare pays an average of $6,000 to $9,000 for these tests, and sometimes as much as $25,000, according to the Office of Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services.

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