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Officials warn of spoofed health exchange websites

As states set up their online health insurance marketplaces ahead of an October deadline, officials are watching for look-alike websites that can lead consumers to be the victims of fraud or simply confusion. 

States are on the lookout for websites created by interest groups, private insurance companies and sometimes scammers that have similar Web addresses and the appearances of the official state exchange websites. Officials are intervening in some cases and trying to make sure consumers are able to spot a fake site before they give out private information. 

"These exchanges could range from deceptive but relatively benign marketing devices for legitimate insurance companies to malicious devices that are designed to steal your identity or insurance information," said James Quiggle, communications director for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud. In California, for example, typing in “Coveredcalifornia.com” takes a user to an informational website, with a fine-print disclaimer that it is not the state-run site Coveredca.com. State insurance officials monitor the website -- run by the Health Exchange Consulting group as a source of information on the state exchange -- because consumers may easily type in the wrong Web address. Because the site is not being used for commercial purposes, however, the state has not interfered.

"We have been monitoring various sites to make sure they are not doing anything illegal or misrepresenting themselves as an agent of Covered California," said Larry Hicks, spokesperson for the state's exchange. "We do periodic searches and domain searches to see what pops up."

Pennsylvania insurance officials intervened in July when a private insurance company welcomed consumers to the "Pennsylvania Health Exchange" with the state seal in the corner. The company took the website down immediately and apologized.

The new state marketplaces, also called exchanges, were mandated by the federal health law and will open in every state on Oct. 1. They will allow consumers to compare insurance options available to them and choose a policy, akin to purchasing a plane ticket online. The application process, however, will be intensive. It asks for personal information such as Social Security numbers, employment information and tax records.

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia are creating their own marketplaces while the remaining states are defaulting to the federal government to run their exchange. Healthcare.gov is the administration's main hub for information and purchasing options for the federal exchanges. 

Experts suggest that to avoid confusion, consumers first head to Healthcare.gov. On that site, they can find out if they will be using the federal exchange or they can get the link to their individual state's exchange.

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