The summer of scam has hit its stride. In late May, an anonymous perp claiming (falsely) to be Montana PRIDE executive director Karl Olson called local gay-friendly businesses saying he had been gay-bashed, robbed and needed cash—and at least one local business wired $500. That same week, the Montana Public Interest Research Group (MontPIRG) reported that an individual posing as a MontPIRG canvasser was prowling the Rattlesnake in search of donations. This week, employees of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) have learned of a marketing effort to sell CHIP information for $14.95, when the information is available, for free, from CHIP.
“What’s distressing to me is that health insurance for children and adults is something that is really important for families to have, yet so many families in Montana can’t afford to buy health insurance,” says Mary Noel, who oversees CHIP for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. “This entity, whoever it is, has taken advantage of this situation.”
Noel admits that $15 may not seem substantial, but when CHIP was started in 1999, it charged a $15 processing fee for information, and Noel quickly discovered that the fee acted as a barrier preventing people from applying, and the fee was eliminated.
At least two Montana newspapers—the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and the Jefferson County Courier—printed advertisements in late May touting “No Cost Insurance For Children” under the name Children’s Health Coverage Advisers. The advertisement listed a toll-free telephone number that connects to a message directing those interested to send $14.95 to receive information.
“There was a situation similar to this in the past,” says Noel. “[Someone] was sending letters to businesses saying, ‘you need information that you can get from us for $20, or you could stand to be fined thousands by the government.’ When the business sent the money, all they would get was a sign that said ‘Equal Opportunity Employer’ to put on their bulletin board. Something they could have gotten free from the Department of Labor.”
Montana Consumer Protection Office staff attorney Cort Jensen is investigating the legalities of the insurance ad. If the ad included the phrase “government program,” he wouldn’t be concerned.
But this ad is “clearly intended to mislead people into thinking that it’s something other than a government program,” he says.
Jensen won’t release information about the party behind the ads, or what sort of action might be taken, because the investigation is ongoing. He will say that it’s suspicious that the company hides behind answering machine messages and has no public face. In the next week or two, Jensen hopes to conclude the investigation.
Free CHIP information is available by calling toll-free, 1-877-543-7669.