Unlike social media, scams aren’t something new brought on by the advent of technology and the internet. Con artists, swindlers, charlatans, grifters — whatever you might call them — have existed since the dawn of humanity. What is new, however, is that these purveyors of fraud can carry out their schemes with more reach, speed and efficiency because of technology. A number of these scams are even targeted directly at mental health professionals. I have heard about some of these scams often enough over the past few years that I thought it would be helpful to summarize a few of them here to help prevent counselors from getting ensnared.
This is by no means an exhaustive list because new scams are cropping up all the time. We can expect continued and probably increased attempts aimed at mental health professionals because medical data carry such high value. It probably doesn’t help that counselors are altruistic and potentially more prone to easily trusting others. This makes many of us ideal targets for scammers.
The overpayment scam
In my experience, the overpayment scam has been the most prevalent in recent years. It starts with the counselor receiving an email requesting services from someone. Typically, the prospective client suggests that they are out of town or out of the country but want to secure several appointments for when they return. They offer to send a check for payment upfront for multiple sessions.
Shortly after the check is received, the person contacts the counselor, saying either that they have “mistakenly overpaid” or suddenly realized that they won’t be in town for all of the sessions for which they have paid. The person then asks the counselor to send a refund for the difference, typically via wire transfer. The scam is that the check the person sent is fraudulent. The counselor sends the refund, only to find out later that the check has bounced or been identified as a forgery, so the counselor has no recourse.
There are slight variants to this scam, including the con artist stating upfront that they are going to overpay and request a refund. In another frequent variant, the con artist suggests that they want to pay for services for a child, relative or friend who lives in the counselor’s area. In one of the most convincing versions I have heard about, the scammer suggests that he or she is part of a couple seeking counseling. The person goes into great detail about their issues and their desire to get several counseling sessions in while they are “back in town.” Alternatively, they have a very convincing reason why they can’t attend counseling where they live and thus are seeking services elsewhere.
Sadly, counselors who fall victim to this scam can end up dealing with more trouble than a simple loss of funds. If they cash the fraudulent check, the bank and, potentially, federal investigators may investigate to ensure that the counselor is not a willing participant in the scheme.
HIPAA phishing email
Although I haven’t seen the HIPAA phishing email lately, it’s a good example of how convincing phishing scams can look. A phishing attack is when someone with less than good intentions attempts to get information from you, typically by posing as another entity.
At the end of 2016, many medical professionals received what appeared to be an official email from the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR), the folks responsible for enforcing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). The email came from OSOCRAudit@hhs-gov.us and directed people to a website:
The email was on mock HHS letterhead and suggested that the recipient might be included in the HIPAA Privacy, Security and Breach Rules Audit Program. The link led to a website that was marketing cybersecurity services. It was convincing, in part, because of how similar the addresses were to the legitimate HHS website, which exists at hhs.gov, and the HHS email address of OSOCRAudit@hhs.gov.
For more details on phishing scams and tips for recognizing and avoiding them, read my blog post at bit.ly/TYPphishing.
You too can be a radio host
The following scenario might be filed under “disingenuous” rather than full-blown scam. It starts with an email or phone call suggesting that you would be a great person to have their own radio show on a popular radio or podcasting network. You may or may not have heard of this network. The questionable part of this scheme is that they only tell you further along in the process that you actually have to pay for “radio time.”
In a variant to this, you are invited to interview on an existing show. After the recording and a producer raving about how you’re “a natural” for radio, they spell out what it will cost to have your own show.
Not a scam: Informational audits
Many counselors have been receiving requests from third-party vendors, purportedly on behalf of private insurance companies, requesting client documentation for purposes of a “chart audit.” These can actually be legitimate requests. Insurance companies use this information for internal purposes, such as Affordable Care Act reporting, justifying rate increases and more. The chart audit isn’t the same as an audit to gauge medical necessity. It is more about quantifying things such as the frequency of certain diagnoses and codes.
Interestingly, the letters, emails and phone calls from these third-party vendors tend to be vague and ask for complete charts when those aren’t always necessary. This makes these requests look like scams. It can be especially concerning when something resembles a scam, yet the vendor mentions specific clients and dates of birth within the communication.
If you are in network with the insurance company, some question exists about whether you need to participate in these audits. Review your contract and consult with an attorney if you are unsure. As a first step, ask the third-party vendor to provide official documentation from the insurance company proving that the vendor is carrying out official business on the insurance company’s behalf. It is also prudent to verify this directly with the insurance company. My understanding is that counselors who are out-of-network providers are under no obligation to respond.
Ways to avoid scams
Trust your instincts: If red flags are raised for you, stop and investigate. Seek consultation, ask colleagues about it and do an internet search to determine whether the situation you are encountering has been seen before by others. Typical warning signs include prospective clients stating how many sessions they want and when, providing false phone numbers and asking for very specific modalities of treatment without apparent justification or understanding. In addition, any request from an unknown entity made via email or over the phone for client information or sensitive clinician information should be met with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Take your time: As natural helpers, our instinct may be to respond to requests promptly. If a request makes you feel uneasy, however, it is important to slow down and ensure that it is legitimate.
Use caution with checks: Especially in this day and age when credit card payments are the norm, accept payment via check only from trusted parties and only for the correct amount. It is important to note that you are responsible for any funds deposited via check. You are not safe just because a check initially clears. If the check is later discovered to be fraudulent, you will have to refund that money to the bank.
Report it: Many government agencies are involved with battling fraud and crime. The following website can help you determine where to report a scam: usa.gov/stop-scams-frauds.
Have you received a communication that you’re unsure about? Do you think you may have identified a new scam? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can investigate.
Related reading from the Counseling Today archives, on the overpayment scam: “Fraudster targets counselor’s innate empathy”
Rob Reinhardt, a licensed professional counselor supervisor, is a private practice and business consultant who helps counselors create and maintain efficient, successful private practices. Before becoming a professional counselor, he worked as a software developer and director of information technology. Contact him at email@example.com.
Letters to the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.