False advertisers use this trick to scam Americans shopping for health insurance : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money If you Google "Obamacare signup," good luck finding healthcare.gov. It'll be buried under several ads trying to lure you to something less healthy. Today's show looks at a classic bait and switch.

Falling down the "junk insurance" rabbit hole

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1060639201/1060673352" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

DAN WEISSMANN, HOST:

You know what is great about changing jobs, Adrian Ma?

ADRIAN MA, HOST:

Dozens of introductory Zoom meetings.

WEISSMANN: (Laughter).

MA: No. What is great about changing jobs, Dan Weissmann?

WEISSMANN: Figuring out health insurance all over again.

MA: Ah, yes.

WEISSMANN: Mitra Kaboli is a journalist, and she recently left a job to go freelance. So she logged onto healthcare.gov.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITRA KABOLI: And it's been really difficult. I forgot what this was like.

WEISSMANN: She thought she'd shop around elsewhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KABOLI: I already have Cigna, and so I thought I was on Cigna's website. You know, I was, like, putting information to get a quote, and I had to put it on, like, my phone number. And the next thing I know, I'm getting a phone call.

WEISSMANN: Just one (laughter)?

KABOLI: Well, actually, my phone's been ringing off the hook for several days now.

WEISSMANN: Yeah. But this first call, she took it. The person on the other end was offering her a really good plan - actually, maybe a little too good to be true.

KABOLI: That was, like, red flag No. 1 where I was like, no way.

MA: Yeah. Except in the moment - remember, she basically thought she was getting a call from Cigna, and so she let that question just sit for a while and listened to the pitch.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KABOLI: It was something like $300 a month, which is less than half of what I'm paying right now. No deductible - unheard of. And we went through the list of all of my doctors, and they were, like, in the network, apparently.

MA: And you may have guessed - Mitra was being led into what we might call a scam, a con, a bait and switch. This one uses up-to-date tools - right? - like deceptive websites, search engine manipulations and a nice sharp hook right now - the stress of shopping for health insurance.

I'm Adrian Ma.

WEISSMANN: I'm Dan Weissmann. I make a podcast called "An Arm And A Leg" about why health care costs so freaking much.

MA: And today on THE INDICATOR - the anatomy of a scam - what scams can tell us about ourselves as rational economic actors.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WEISSMANN: So to really understand this bait and switch, let's hear from somebody who exposed herself to it on purpose.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANIA PALANKER: I'm Dania Palanker. I am an assistant research professor at the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University.

WEISSMANN: And you did a secret shopper survey recently.

PALANKER: Yes, I did. I did a study to see what would happen to somebody who was going to buy health insurance and started by doing an internet search online.

WEISSMANN: And you searched for terms like cheap health insurance or even Obamacare or ACA sign-up. Is that right?

PALANKER: Exactly.

WEISSMANN: And the first results - always ads, but carefully crafted to look legit. Dania picked the three results that came up the most often in these searches and followed them - but not as herself. Instead, she created two characters.

MA: I love this part. She's, like, low-key scamming the scammers. And she even created Google Voice numbers - one for each character.

WEISSMANN: I know. One character was young and healthy. The other was in her 40s and had high cholesterol and a heart condition. So she needed what nerds call an Obamacare-compliant plan - the kind that has to cover pre-existing conditions, like that heart problem.

MA: And three-quarters of the folks on the phone did not offer that to her. Instead, they pushed junk insurance. And this is an actual term researchers like Dania Palanker use for plans that don't meet Obamacare regulations.

WEISSMANN: And these folks said stuff that was blatantly untrue, even when they were asked the right questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PALANKER: Yeah. Like, is it going to cover me if I have a heart attack? Absolutely.

WEISSMANN: And of all the folks selling junk insurance, only one of them would send anything in writing. The rest wanted a credit card number first, and they had reasons. There was always a reason.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PALANKER: The people you're talking to have a script that's written to pull you in, to make you think that they're doing the best thing for you.

WEISSMANN: What do they say?

PALANKER: They say they're going to find you a cheaper plan, and then they just make you feel good. I mean, it's like they're just chatting with you in a comfortable way. And every question has what seems like the right answer if you don't know that it's the wrong answer.

WEISSMANN: And the biggest wrong answer is how they steer you away from plans on the Obamacare marketplace.

PALANKER: They tell you that they're more expensive, that they're unaffordable for you, that they've got the right deal.

MA: The right deal - this is the hallmark of a con, right? I've got a special thing just for you.

WEISSMANN: And in this case, incidentally, that is just super not true. And not just because the alternatives these folks are selling are crap, but because health insurance on the Obamacare marketplace is actually a super good deal this year.

MA: Right. The American Rescue Plan, that big stimulus package that Congress passed earlier this year, that included big subsidies for Obamacare plans - sometimes giant subsidies.

WEISSMANN: Yeah. And here's what's interesting - Dania says some of the individual salespeople she heard from weren't necessarily even trying to lie to her. She thinks they were just following their scripts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PALANKER: One of the people I spoke with actually had me put into the computer healthcare.gov and go. And he was like, see what high deductibles you have? And I said, I see a plan for no deductible for $2. And he got quiet. He didn't know what I was saying. So it was clear that he wasn't lying to me. He didn't know these subsidies were out there.

MA: So we have no idea how many of these folks you get calls from are intentionally trying to deceive. But they are using high-pressure sales tactics - you know, telling you stuff that's untrue, selling you something that's crap.

WEISSMANN: And they have bought your phone number from somebody who definitely was trying to deceive you, who set up a website and Google AdWords so that when you looked for Obamacare or Cigna, you got them instead. Dania Palanker says the Federal Trade Commission and state regulators have tried going after those folks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PALANKER: At times, when the FTC has found out who's behind it, that entity has been put out of business. But I've also spoken to state regulators who say they put one of these entities out, and another one pops right back up. And it's a bit of a whack-a-mole.

MA: The scam is still out there. And really, anybody can fall for it. Mitra, the journalist we met earlier, came right up to the edge.

WEISSMANN: But when the sales guy was pressuring Mitra for a credit card number, she did manage to slow things down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KABOLI: I was like, why isn't there a website where I can compare plans side by side like normal?

MA: So Mitra told the guy, look, I'm just going to call my doctors first and confirm that they take the plan you're talking about.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KABOLI: So I called all of my doctors, and they were like, I don't know - I don't even know what you're talking about.

WEISSMANN: I told Mitra what's interesting is even though you were starting to see the red flags, you still spent, like, an hour of your life calling all your doctors, just on the off-chance this could be legit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KABOLI: I know. This is, like, the heartbreaking thing about when something is too good to be true. Like, you want it to be true.

WEISSMANN: Yeah. I feel like Mitra is summing up what con games offer. It's this chance to hope that maybe this time we've lucked into an easier way, a special deal, a way out.

MA: This is what makes con games and scams great examples of what behavioral economists have been trying to tell us. We are not always rational economic actors. A lot of the time, we see what we're expecting to see and what we want to see, whether it's there or not.

WEISSMANN: Yeah - especially if we're in a hurry or confronting something stressful or confusing or really expensive. So, for instance, I asked Mitra to show me the site that had snookered her into all this. And she pulled up her browser history.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KABOLI: Now that I'm looking at the page, I'm like, this obviously isn't Cigna.

WEISSMANN: I know (laughter).

KABOLI: Like, I'm embarrassed. I know what Cigna's website looks like.

WEISSMANN: I let a dude from - I got to what I thought was an hp.com support page and ended up giving a random person the credentials to take over my computer to help fix my printer.

KABOLI: Oh, my God.

WEISSMANN: Yeah. Health insurance is not the only area where somebody is rigging Google to lead you astray. Changing all those passwords was a nightmare.

MA: Dan Weissmann, you got fished. You fell for one of those.

WEISSMANN: Yeah. I clearly need a behavioral economist sitting on my shoulder at all times.

MA: Probably, I do, too. Dan Weissmann is the host of the podcast "An Arm And A Leg" about why health care costs so freaking much. By the way, it's open enrollment for health insurance on Obamacare marketplaces through January 15. So be careful out there.

WEISSMANN: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Julia Ritchey with help from Marcia Caldwell and Gilly Moon. It was fact-checked by Taylor Washington. THE INDICATOR's senior producer is Viet Le. Our editor is Kate Concannon. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.