"Fire is motion / Work is repetition / This is my document / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all defenses."

- Cap'N Jazz, "Oh Messy Life," Analphabetapolothology

Monday, January 09, 2012

the dangerous cunning of internet scams

over the holidays, i was at home in kentucky eating lunch with my family, when we got a phone call. my brother, being the most spry of us at the table, jumped up and answered the phone. my brother, also being the most patient/naive of us at the table, listened to the automated message long enough to hear that whoever just called us had put us on hold, to wait for "the next available agent." my mom immediately grabbed the phone from him and hung up. everyone at the table chided him, "when you get calls from telemarketers, just hang up!"

but, this was one of several similar calls we'd gotten this week. at another point during the holidays, we got a call from "American Express" which i thought was a telemarketing call, so i hung up, but then i remembered that credit card companies sometimes make courtesy calls when strange or suspicious spending occurs on a credit card (i'm grateful to my credit card EVERY single time this happens, even the one time it was for $70 of groceries at Safeway). so, it being the holidays, i had a twinge of concern in the back of my mind and asked if my parents had checked their credit card activity lately. my mom, being a somewhat paranoid and worrisome person, immediately checked her wallet and my dad's wallet and freaked out that one of their AmEx cards was missing. she called American Express back to talk to someone to see if something suspicious had happened on their card because one was missing. 10 minutes later, we found the card (at the bottom of a purse or briefcase) and AmEx informed us they hadn't made a call to us in the last half hour.

but, because of this earlier incident, in which a potential telemarketing scam could have also been a potential credit-related courtesy call, my mom's curiosity was more piqued than it would otherwise be, and she called the-place-that-put-us-on-hold back and asked them who they were, why they called us, and if it was such an important matter, why they put us on hold. the person on the line then continued to inform her that i owed $400+ in debt to a hospital in LA for a visit occurring nearly 2 years ago. my mom was incredulous at first, then angry, argumentative, and lastly, she asked me if i knew anything about this. i thought it was preposterous, i had a string of freak medical emergencies about 2 years ago for a work-related health injury, but i had paid all my medical bills up front, out of pocket. i also had two different sets of insurance, my own medical insurance and workers' comp. so to have an outstanding debt of this size from over two years ago, and not hear anything about it until now, seemed wildly suspicious. worse, the man on the phone threatened that the issue had to be resolved TODAY.

luckily, my mom was in a hurry to go to yoga and told him he'd have to wait, and then just hung up. we didn't hear from them again. until a week later. they sent a letter to my house, which i didn't read or see because i wasn't home when my mom got it, but it freaked her out. from what i can tell though, from her reading it to me on skype, is that there are no details regarding the visit, what services or procedures incurred the debt, or even who the doctor(s) was/were that i saw. the letter said i had 30 days to write back to dispute it, otherwise they would assume i acknowledge a debt was owed and they would pursue it.

well, this afternoon, while i was sitting in the sun enjoying a post-lunch break with some reading, i received another call. again, the man on the phone was insistent that i needed to resolve the issue today. i told him, firmly, that i would not be doing ANYTHING today, i would not admit debt, would not resolve to pay them, would not speak to them further, until i obtained written documentation from them and the hospital with more details about the supposed outstanding bills and until they could tell me specifically where the charges were coming from. they couldn't even tell me what date the visit(s) occurred. the man on the phone said he wasn't a doctor and could not provide that information. i asked to speak to his manager, was put on hold for 10 minutes, and then i hung up because i thought it was ridiculous. they called me back another ten minutes later, but left no messages when i didn't answer.

this angers me so much because what the man on the phone is telling me is that the hospital i saw in LA "sold" my and others' medical files and bills to the collection agency he represents. isn't this a violation of HIPAA and patient confidentiality acts? if some third party company does in fact have access to my information (such as address, phone number) and was sold that information, i am pretty sure i have firm grounds to sue. 

well, i looked up their number online and found that others had received similar (unwarranted) phone calls and had filed complaints, indicating some suspicious, scammy behavior. i also called my insurance and workers comp representatives right away, and received notice from them that what this company is doing is ILLEGAL. according to my workers comp agent, discussions of debt or bills directly with patients (at least as it pertains to workers comp cases) is illegal, they should always go directly to insurance first. also, i should have received fair warning of this, even if i did not pay something, rather than hearing about it suddenly two years later.

my biggest problem with this is the predatory nature in which these kinds of calls are being placed. without having to do more than mention "debt" "collection" "credit report" in one sentence, they made my parents draw their own conclusions with a lack of evidence or data and had them fearing for their financial security. they immediately feared for their ruined credit scores, having all their assets seized, legal troubles that could easily be disappeared with a quick $400 payoff. this is the scary nature of scams these days: scammers can easily get you to leap to conclusions and be under their thumb, because the economy is so scary right now, everyone's trying to stay out of debt, and everyday people feel powerless and ill-prepared to challenge even the most dubious of financial crises or disputes. my parents thoughts immediately turned to "it will be easier to pay this now while it's still early than to try to delay it and incur litigation fees or penalties." but where's the proof? also, resolving a financial dispute over the phone immediately seems very strange to me.

furthermore, scams of this nature erode our sense of security and foster paranoia - how can we distinguish between a real scam and a legitimate call from my credit card or hospital? how will i know when i actually owe money and when i'm being taken for a ride? (answer: always keep really detailed and careful records of all your medical-related bills and large purchases, always make sure you pay on time - and keep records of debt repayment - and keep a rolodex of people at each agency or organization you use services from and their customer service lines. NEVER take anyone's word for it that you owe money and didn't know about it).

if you are similarly the victim of dubious medical bill-related calls, here is what you should do: tell them they should contact your insurance (but DO NOT provide any insurance phone numbers or plan data) and if they contact you further tell them their actions are illegal and you will report them to an accountability agency. then see if you can have their numbers blocked from your phone.

the point of this post is: in today's increasingly confusing and difficult to navigate digital world, information and misinformation are equally abundant and equally dangerous. scammers know that a lot of people are paranoid right now about issues related to money, and many don't know how to differentiate between legitimate companies and scams (for example: my dad opened a spam email from "Amazon" telling him my brother had purchased a $500 laptop computer, and then forwarded it to my whole family asking who bought the computer, before i told him to delete it immediately and not click any of the links because it was spam. you don't see a lot of "Nigerian prince" emails any more, all the spam is masked as notifications from companies you actually use - Viagara and Rolex being perhaps exceptions to the rule).

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