U.S. Military Veterans who are making decisions about their medical care are the target of a new telephone scam that involves the Veterans Choice Program help line.
The scammers are depending on veterans to misdial the number to the Veterans Choice Program. Once they misdial, they are told they’re entitled to a rebate if they provide a credit card number. But in the end, there is no rebate.
This article explores how the Veterans Choice Program phone scam works, how to detect it, and what veterans can do if they become a victim.
We’ve gathered input from organizations that are publicizing warnings about this scam, including the Federal Trade Commission, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Veterans Health Administration.
Let’s begin by discussing the legitimate Veterans Choice Program.
What Is Veterans Choice Program?
The Veterans Choice Program is an initiative of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that allows certain eligible veterans to use approved health care providers who are outside of the VA system, according to Carol Kando-Pineda, an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission’s Division of Consumer & Business Education.
The program provides primary care, inpatient and outpatient specialty care, and mental health care when the local Department of Veterans Affairs health care facility cannot provide the services due to:
- Lack of available specialists.
- Long wait times.
- Extraordinary distance from the Veteran’s home.
“The program provides community health care if you are already enrolled in VA health care,” explained JC Oberst, a Navy veteran and executive director of the Gold Coast Veterans Foundation.
The Veterans Choice Program allows you to receive health care from a participating provider if the VA health care appointment is not available within 30 days, or if the VA healthcare is over 40 miles from your residence, Oberst said.
“If you see your VA primary care physician and a referral appointment is scheduled with a VA facility that cannot see you within 30 days or is over 40 miles away from your residence, then you can request to use the Veterans Choice Program,” Oberst noted. “At this point, the Veterans Choice Program will call you to schedule an appointment with a participating provider.”
Now that we’ve discussed the legitimate Veterans Choice Program, let’s talk about the scam associated with this program in which criminals attempt to steal money from veterans over the phone.
How Does Veterans Choice Program Phone Scam Work?
Veterans or families can call the Veterans Choice Program’s toll-free number to verify their eligibility for the program.
“Here’s the problem: Scammers have set up a phony telephone line that very closely resembles the Veterans Choice Program’s real telephone number,” Kando-Pineda stated in a blog published by the Federal Trade Commission on May 15.
“Con artists often use names, seals, and logos that look or sound like those of respected, legitimate organizations,” Kando-Pineda noted. “This time they’re using a phone number that’s almost identical to the real thing, counting on creating confusion.”
Since the inception of the Veterans Choice Program in November of 2014, more than 1.5 million Veterans have tapped into it, according to Tom Grahek, program manager of the Veterans Health Administration Office of Community Care.
When the Veterans Choice Program phone line became compromised with this scam, the VA notified the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Federal Trade Commission and the Office of Inspector General, Grahek said.
The real number for the Veterans Choice Program is 866-606-8198. With this phone scam, criminals are depending on the Veteran to misdial the area code before the phone number, said Detective Timothy Lohman, who solves forgery, fraud and financial crimes in Southern California.
“Back in the day, the toll-free number was 1-800, but in this case, the toll-free number is 1-866,” Detective Lohman said. “The scammer’s intention is to get veterans who will misdial, so instead of dialing 1-866, they’re dialing 1-800.”
When a veteran misdials, they think they’ve reached the Veterans Choice Program.
“The fake line’s message says you’re entitled to a rebate if you provide a credit card number,” Kando-Pineda stated. “But if you give up your account information, they’ll debit your account and you’ll get nothing in return. There is no rebate and you’ll need to cancel your credit card.”
This potential attempt to impersonate the Veterans Choice Program phone line is being taken very seriously, according to a blog published by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“VA is acting to ensure veterans are not exploited by getting the word out and also by working with the Office of Inspector General to take legal action and ultimately shut the fake line down,” the blog states.
Now that we’ve addressed the legitimate phone number associated with the Veterans Choice Program, the next section offers more details of what occurs when a veteran mistakenly calls the fake phone line.
How Can You Tell That You Reached a Fake Phone Line?
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the fake phone line does not provide information on the Veterans Choice Program or its eligibility criteria – instead it claims to offer callers a $100 rebate if they provide a credit card number.
The VA “would never ask veterans for this information or offer this type of financial incentive through the Choice Program phone line,” the department states.
Veterans can tell if they have reached the correct phone line if the phone line automatically states the caller has reached the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
You know you have reached the wrong phone line when:
- The phone line offers callers a $100 rebate if the caller provides a credit card.
- The phone line does not state the caller has reached U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs or the Veterans Choice Program phone line.
“The fake line will incorrectly confirm callers have reached the Veterans Choice Program if the caller asks this question,” noted the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “If veterans are unsure if they have reached the correct phone line, they should hang up and make sure they dial 1-866-606-8198 correctly.”
The next section describes the first-hand experience of a military wife who called the fake phone line. Her goal was to educate herself so she could warn veterans about this scam.
Military Wife Experiences the Veterans Choice Program Phone Scam
Kim Evans, founder and executive director of the Ventura County Military Collaborative, called the phony Veterans Choice Program phone number to witness the workings of this scam herself.
She called the mimic call center on May 9 from an unlisted phone number.
“It sounds like the mimic line reaches a call center and the agent that I spoke with had a heavy accent, and from discussions in the call center it sounds like they may not operate in the U.S.,” Evans said.
When she was told about the $100 gift card, she asked how a gift card would assist her with veteran benefits.
“I was told that I could use the gift card to buy groceries,” Evans recalled. “I repeatedly asked if this was the Veterans Choice Program and was told ‘yes’ on multiple occasions. I was never told that they were not affiliated with veterans or veteran benefits. Nor was I told that they are the VA.”
For veterans who fall victim to this scam, Evans recommends immediately contacting their credit card company to make sure no other charges were billed.
“The VA doesn't ask you for your credit card to send you gift cards,” Evans said. “As far as I know they would never ask for your credit card number over the phone and they certainly aren't in the business of sending out free, or otherwise, gift cards.”
As the wife of a Persian Gulf and Iraq war veteran who retired after 26 years of service, Evans said the Veterans Choice Program phone scam is bad on two fronts:
“A veteran calling is more than likely in need of medical assistance and services, so to pretend that you are representing the VA Choice Program is just horrible,” Evans said. “They definitely want your credit card number – I can’t imagine that’s a good thing. To pray on those who have served this nation is beyond disgusting.”
Evans added that even though she called the phony line from an unlisted phone number, “they were able to pull it up. I imagine that my phone number will be used in the future for additional solicitations.”
Veterans Choice Program Phone Scam – A Recap
The following points are indicators of the telephone scam associated with the Veterans Choice Program:
- The mimic line offers callers a $100 rebate if the caller provides a credit card.
- The mimic line does not state callers have reached the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs or the Veterans Choice Line.
- Callers have reported that the mimic line incorrectly confirms callers had reached the Veterans Choice Program – if that caller asks that question.
- Officials have identified 1-800-606-8198 as the fake number. Do not answer calls from this number.
- The correct number for the Veterans Choice Line is 1-866-606-8198.
The VA Identity Safety Service offers a toll-free identity theft help line to veterans and their beneficiaries who believe that they are at risk. The number is 1-855-578-5492, and it operates Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST, with voicemail for after-hours calls.
Remember, the VA does not ask for credit card information.
“If you believe you’ve been a victim and have provided your credit card information, call your local police agency and file a report, or report it to the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Detective Lohman advised.
“We’re just trying to warn veterans now so they don’t fall victim,” he added. “Our efforts are proactive. We’re trying to advise the public so veterans can avoid this scam.”
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