CMS Loosens Rules for Coronavirus Testing

  • Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries can now get tested for the coronavirus without a written order from a physician, which CMS officials say will expand the availability of COVID-19 screenings.
  • Physicans and occupational therapists as well as speech language pathologists can provide telehealth visits, under new orders from CMS. The agency is also allowing patients and medical professionals to hold telehealth sessions over the telephone.
  • Communities that are in phase 1 of the administration’s re-opening plan can begin to provide non COVID-19 treatments and elective procedures that have been curtailed since the coronavirus outbreak.
  • Coronavirus tests will be available for Medicare beneficiaries who cannot leave their homes, and testing will be ramped up in nursing homes, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Seema Verma said Monday. CMS is making a number of moves to relax regulations on the health care system so, for example, hospitals can treat patients in alternative sites and increase staffing.
  • Medicare officials have issued an alert to all beneficiaries that scammers may try to use the coronavirus as an opportunity to steal their identities and commit Medicare fraud. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid officials reminded enrollees that Medicare will never call them to ask for their Medicare number.
  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recommends that nonessential, elective surgeries and other medical procedures be postponed during the coronavirus outbreak. CMS also asks that nonessential dental exams and procedures be postponed.
  • Medicare expands telehealth options so more patients — especially older adults — can get medical advice and care while remaining in their homes and stemming the spread of the coronavirus.
  • CMS tells Medicare Advantage and Part D prescription drug plans they can relax copays and other cost sharing when it comes to testing for the coronavirus.

Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries can now get tested for COVID-19 without a written order from a physician, which will make it easier for individuals to get screenings in drive-up sites and pharmacies.

“Testing is vital, and CMS’s changes will make getting tested easier and more accessible for Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma said in announcing the change that will be in effect throughout the public health emergency.

The announcement means that any health care professional, including pharmacists who are enrolled in Medicare as a covered laboratory, will be able to order the coronavirus test and CMS will pay for it. CMS will also cover tests individuals take at home and some antibody testing to help determine whether someone may have developed an immune response to the virus and therefore might not be at immediate risk for COVID-19 reinfection.

Telehealth options expanded

Patients can now get telehealth services from an expanded group of health care professionals, including physical and occupational therapists and speech language pathologists, under changes CMS officials say will help ensure that beneficiaries don’t have to leave their homes and risk exposure to COVID-19.

CMS is also waiving the requirement that telehealth sessions must be conducted using video technology, meaning Medicare will pay for telephone-only visits, allowing beneficiaries who do not have access to the internet to still communicate with their medical professionals.

Medicare has been gradually ramping up the use of telehealth in recent years. But while Medicare Advantage plans have been allowed to offer liberal telehealth benefits for several years, beneficiaries of original Medicare have had more limited telehealth benefits, amounting to brief virtual check-ins. And beneficiaries would not generally be able to get telehealth services in their own homes. About 40 million Americans are enrolled in original Medicare.

Tuesday’s announcement will allow all Medicare beneficiaries to “see” their doctors remotely for the kind of routine checkups and monitoring of chronic conditions that would normally be done in a provider’s office. A Medicare enrollee, for example, who has diabetes, can now confer with his or her doctor without leaving the house, and a medical professional can order a new medicine or refill a prescription without needing to see the patient in person. Nursing home residents will also be able to have telehealth consultations with their doctors.

And, while regular Medicare copays will apply to telemedicine visits, CMS officials say that during the coronavirus emergency, providers can waive or reduce cost sharing for telehealth visits.

“Clinicians on the front lines will now have greater flexibility to safely treat our beneficiaries.” Verma said in a statement announcing the telehealth expansion.

Medicare releases guidelines for non-COVID-19 care

Hospitals in states that have reached phase 1 of the administration’s reopening plan can begin providing non-COVID-19 care that has been postponed since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Medicare officials announced late Sunday.

For areas that have fulfilled the federal recommendations to begin phasing in a relaxation of the restrictions designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has issued a set of guidelines for how hospitals can begin to offer medical care not associated with COVID-19.

In March, CMS asked hospitals to stop providing elective surgeries and other procedures not related to the coronavirus to avoid strain on the health care system. The suspension resulted in outpatient surgical facilities mostly being shut down. 

“As states and localities begin to stabilize, it is important to restart care that is currently being postponed,” CMS said in its announcement. The guidance applies to some elective procedures, care for chronic diseases and some preventive care. CMS also encouraged patients and providers to continue to use telehealth wherever possible, but noted that some medical care must be provided in person.

“We are providing a road map for providers to offer some forms of non-coronavirus-related care to asymptomatic patients,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma said Monday on a conference call with reporters. “These are recommendations, and every state and local officials will need to assess the situation on the ground to determine the best course forward,” including that they have the equipment and supplies necessary to handle the non-virus care, she added.

CMS says hospitals that have adequate facilities and staff to handle non-virus care should establish non-COVID care zones to treat patients for conditions not related to COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Guidelines for providing this care include:

  • Staff working in the non-COVID-19 zone should be continually screened for the virus.
  • Staff should wear surgical masks and patients should wear a cloth face covering at all times.
  • Patients should be screened for potential symptoms of COVID-19 before entering the non-COVID zone and, when possible, patients should be tested before getting care in that zone.
  • Staff who work in the non-COVID zone should not also treat patients with coronavirus symptoms.
  • Hospitals should continue to monitor the incidence of COVID-19 and stop nonessential procedures if there is a surge in the virus.

Testing expanded for shut-ins, nursing homes

Medicare beneficiaries whose doctors think they should be tested for COVID-19 but who are not able to leave their homes will be able to get test kits brought to them, thanks to the relaxation of federal health system restrictions during the pandemic.

In addition, Medicare will pay for lab companies to collect samples in nursing homes, which house many older Americans.

“We hope that this will encourage more testing of our nursing home residents, who are among the most vulnerable,” Verma said on a call with reporters Monday night. “We know that over 150 nursing homes have been affected. By increasing testing, we can isolate those patients that have been impacted and keep other residents healthy.”

CMS had earlier announced an expansion of telehealth services, but Verma said those rules are being relaxed even more. Virtual emergency room visits will now be allowed and doctors will be paid for clinical phone calls with their patients, something designed to eliminate any issues Medicare enrollees might have accessing the technology used in more traditional telehealth services. CMS is also expanding the use of telehealth for inpatient rehabilitation, hospice care and home health, Verma said.

Under the relaxed regulations, hospitals will, for example, be able to move patients to alternative sites — such as tented operations, dormitories and outpatient centers — to make room in main hospitals for COVID-19 patients. Rules regarding the ability of hospitals to hire local physicians and other health professionals to meet the surging demand are also being temporarily suspended.



Protect yourself against Medicare fraud

Medicare officials are warning beneficiaries that fraudsters may try to use the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to try and steal their identity and commit Medicare fraud. 

“In some cases they might tell you they’ll send you a Coronavirus test, masks, or other items in exchange for your Medicare number or personal information,” the alert from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services says. “Be wary of unsolicited requests for your Medicare number or other personal information. Only give your Medicare number to participating Medicare pharmacists, primary and specialty care doctors or people you trust to work with Medicare on your behalf. Remember, Medicare will never call you to ask for or check your Medicare number.”

CMS urges enrollees to treat their Medicare guard like it’s a credit card. Here are some tips the agency has for how to protect against being the victim of Medicare fraud.

  • Medicare will never contact you for your Medicare Number or other personal information unless you’ve given them permission in advance.
  • Medicare will never call you to sell you anything.
  • You may get calls from people promising you things if you give them a Medicare Number. Don’t do it.  
  • Medicare will never visit you at your home. 
  • Medicare can’t enroll you over the phone unless you called first.

Postpone unnecessary care

As hospitals are increasingly facing shortages in everything from protective gear to respirators to personnel, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is recommending that surgeries and other medical procedures that are not absolutely necessary be postponed.

“The reality is clear and the stakes are high: We need to preserve personal protective equipment for those on the front lines of this fight,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma said in a statement announcing the recommendations. CMS officials say postponing elective procedures will free up personal protective equipment (PPE), hospital beds and ventilators.

Dental procedures use a lot of the PPE that is increasingly in short supply and “have one of the highest risks of transmission” of coronavirus because of how close the dentist or his assistants have to get to their patients. “To reduce the risk of spread and to preserve PPE, we are recommending that all nonessential dental exams and procedures be postponed until further notice,” the CMS news release says.


CMS officials also made it clear that the guidance they are issuing is based on recommendations — not requirements. “The decision about proceedings with nonessential surgeries and procedures will be made at the local level by the clinician, patient, hospital, and state and local health departments,” the CMS statement says.

Beyond the urgency of a procedure and the availability of beds, PPE and staff, federal officials suggest that doctors and patients consider the health and age of patients, “especially given the risks of concurrent COVID-19 infection during recovery.”

Here are some examples of procedures CMS officials recommend be postponed and those that could proceed:

  • Postpone: Outpatient surgery and procedures for illnesses that are not life-threatening. Procedures include: colonoscopy, endoscopies, cataract surgery, carpal tunnel release surgery
  • Consider postponing: Conditions that are not life-threatening but could be life-threatening in the future. These procedures require a hospital stay. Procedures include: knee replacement and elective spine surgery; elective angioplasty; low risk cancer procedures.
  • Do not postpone: Most cancer procedures; transplants, cardiac procedures for patients with symptoms, limb-threatening vascular surgery, neurosurgery.

Woman washing her soapy hands in a bathroom

Medicare benefits during the outbreak

Government leaders have already outlined a number of ways Medicare Advantage and Medicare Part D plans can be more flexible when it comes to certain costs related to COVID-19. Here are some ways CMS says Medicare Advantage and Medicare Part D can potentially “mitigate the impact on the health care system” and help speed up access to care, especially for high-risk populations:

  • Waive cost sharing for COVID-19 tests.
  • Waive cost sharing for COVID-19 treatments in doctor’s offices or emergency rooms and services delivered via telehealth.
  • Remove prior-authorizations requirements — this is when approval from Medicare is required before a certain service is provided.
  • Waive prescription refill limits.
  • Relax restrictions on home or mail delivery of prescriptions.

Reprinted from AARP

10 Myths About the Coronavirus

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In a matter of months, the coronavirus has swept across the globe, sickening millions and killing hundreds of thousands in its path. And just as quickly as the virus has spread, so too have falsehoods about its transmissibility and treatment. Here are 10 myths about the coronavirus that you shouldn’t believe.

Myth: Warmer weather will stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Summer is just around the corner, and some are hoping that the warmer weather will put an end to the coronavirus outbreak. Public health experts, however, caution that this may not be the case.

“The science there is not as clear as it needs to be” when it comes to the weather’s impact on the speed of the virus’s spread, says Aaron Bernstein, M.D., interim director of C-CHANGE (Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “And I don’t think it can be because, although we have other coronaviruses to draw inference from, we don’t have experience with this coronavirus.”

If this coronavirus acts like other coronaviruses (remember that there are several coronaviruses that can infect humans and cause mild upper-respiratory tract illnesses, such as the common cold), warmer temperatures and more humid weather may slow it down, Bernstein says. These viruses and others, including the bug that causes the flu, tend to spread more during cold-weather months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, “that does not mean it is impossible to become sick with these viruses during other months,” the CDC says.

“There’s some research to suggest that even at slower rates, [the novel coronavirus] is still going to be capable of exponential transmission” during summer’s warm months, explains Bernstein, pointing to places with warm-weather climates such as Singapore, India and Louisiana as examples. These areas have seen large outbreaks of infections despite their hot temperatures.

Another thing to consider? Hot weather increases the risk for hospitalization and death, especially among older adults, whose bodies have a harder time adjusting to temperature changes. This could add stress to hospitals and health care systems around the country that are already burdened with coronavirus outbreaks.

“We have to be mindful” and not rush to abandon preventive measures such as social distancing just because it’s summer, Bernstein argues. The World Health Organization (WHO) says frequent handwashing is also needed to prevent coronavirus infections, no matter how sunny or warm it is outside.

Myth: Young people don’t get sick from a coronavirus infection.

While older adults and people with chronic health conditions — including heart disease, kidney disease, lung ailments and diabetes — are at higher risk than younger, healthier people for getting severely sick from the illness caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19), they are not the only population filling hospital beds around the globe.  

A mid-March analysis from the CDC found that more than half of the nearly 2,500 Americans who had been hospitalized with COVID-19 at that point were younger than 55. And while the rate of hospitalizations for COVID-19 is higher in adults 65 and older, it’s still significant in people under 65.

Jordan Warchol, an emergency physician and assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC), says she has seen “several people” in their 30s and 40s become critically ill with COVID-19.



“Even though it might happen more often to older people, that doesn’t mean that young people are immune from it,” she says. And, unfortunately, lots of people are “getting severely ill when we otherwise would not expect that because of their age.”

Myth: Social distancing isn’t necessary if you’ve already been infected.

Even if you’ve tested positive for a past coronavirus infection, you still need to take the same precautions as everyone else, experts say. And that’s because we don’t have a definitive answer yet as to whether a previous infection provides extended immunity.  

“We’re still waiting for some of the studies to come out that really tell us for sure that when you’ve had the virus and mounted an antibody to it, that you are protected,” says Roger Shapiro, M.D., associate professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. However, “the general feeling is that there’s a lot of optimism that this will be the case.”

In the case of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) — two other illnesses caused by coronaviruses — infected survivors develop an immune response that can last for months to years, Shapiro points out. “So we are hopeful that [the novel coronavirus] will be the same.”

The virus’s close cousin, however — the one that causes the common cold — “is a little more tricky” because people get colds “over and over again,” Shapiro adds. “So that’s where some of the hesitation comes.”

Until the research paints a clearer picture, the CDC says everyone — including those who have had a coronavirus infection — should “continue to take steps to protect yourself and others.” This includes frequent handwashing, wearing a cloth face covering in public and keeping at least 6 feet of space between yourself and others.

Myth: If you don’t have fever, cough and shortness of breath, you don’t have COVID-19.

While fever, cough and shortness of breath are the hallmark symptoms of COVID-19, they are not the only warning signs of an infection. The CDC recently updated its list of symptoms to include chills, muscle pain, sore throat, and new loss of taste or smell. “Other less common symptoms have been reported, including gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, vomiting or diarrhea,” the CDC says.

The newly expanded list makes it easier to catch patients who otherwise may not have qualified for a coronavirus test, thus helping containment efforts, UNMC’s Warchol explains. It also helps the general public know “what to be on the lookout for” in respect to self-isolation as experts learn more about the virus’s impact on the body.

Myth: You can catch COVID-19 from your pet.

There is no evidence to suggest that humans are catching COVID-19 from their pets or that animals play a significant role, if any, in spreading the disease, according to the CDC. Furthermore, the CDC says there is no evidence that the new coronavirus is circulating among wildlife, including bats, in the U.S. The origin of the coronavirus is unknown, though some researchers have tied it to a live animal market in China.

However, it does appear that the illness can spread from people to animals in some rare situations, both the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) say. A small number of animals worldwide have tested positive for the coronavirus, mostly after having close contact with a person with COVID-19. Because of this, public health officials say owners should make sure their pets follow some of the same preventive measures that humans practice.

For example, don’t let your pets interact with people or other animals outside the household, and avoid dog parks or other crowded areas where people and animals play. When walking your dog, keep at least 6 feet of space from other people and animals, the FDA says. And if you are sick with COVID-19, isolate yourself from other people and animals, including your pet, the CDC recommends. Instead, ask a friend or family member to care for your pet until you recover.

Other types of coronaviruses can make pets sick, such as canine and feline coronaviruses. However, “these other coronaviruses cannot infect people and are not related to the current COVID-19 outbreak,” the CDC says.

Myth: Ibuprofen makes COVID-19 worse.

Fever and muscle pain are two common symptoms of COVID-19, and without a formally approved treatment, the CDC recommends that people with mild cases of the illness take over-the-counter medicines to help alleviate uncomfortable symptoms. But a flood of news reports in March claimed that nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil), could make a case of COVID-19 worse, raising questions about the widely used drug’s safety in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.  

Several experts, however, have since countered these claims, including the FDA. The agency said it isn’t aware of any “scientific evidence” to prove that NSAIDs could aggravate COVID-19 symptoms. In April, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) doubled down on the FDA’s stance. In its treatment guidelines for COVID-19, the agency said there is no difference between acetaminophen (Tylenol) and NSAIDs for reducing fever among patients with and without COVID-19, and that people with COVID-19 who are taking NSAIDs to help manage another condition “should continue therapy as previously directed by their physician.”

Whether you have COVID-19 or not, it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor or pharmacist before taking any new medication — especially if you have underlying health conditions that can be complicated by certain drugs.

People with kidney disease or problems with stomach ulcers, for example, may be steered toward acetaminophen. “And on the flip side, if you have problems with hepatitis or liver trouble, then acetaminophen may not be the best choice,” David Aronoff, a physician and director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told AARP. “And that’s why speaking with a pharmacist or a physician or nurse can be really very helpful.”

Myth: It’s dangerous to go outside during the pandemic.

The general advice from experts is to stay home as much as possible to limit your risk of a coronavirus infection, but that doesn’t mean you can’t garden in your yard or take a walk around the neighborhood for some fresh air and exercise. Just make sure you continue to practice precautions — bring some hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol and keep a distance of at least 6 feet from others.  

It’s important to steer clear of crowded parks and group gatherings, the CDC says. And don’t forget to wear a cloth face mask when you do go out. This helps to “protect your community” in case that you unknowingly have the virus, Harvard’s Shapiro adds.

Myth: You should avoid the hospital at all costs if you want to stay healthy.

While in-person appointments at primary care offices are on pause during the pandemic, emergency rooms are still very much open. But recent data show fewer people are accessing them — and this can have deadly consequences.

“If you feel like what’s going on with you or with a loved one is an emergency, please come to the emergency department. We have plenty of measures in place to ensure your safety as far as not transferring coronavirus from another patient to you.”– Jordan Warchol, emergency physician and assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center

A poll from the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) found that 80 percent of the roughly 2,200 adults surveyed were worried that a trip to the emergency room would put them at high risk for contracting COVID-19. Nearly one-third admitted to actively delaying or avoiding medical care during the pandemic out of concern for catching the illness.

A recent survey of nine high-volume hospitals illustrates just how much of an impact virus fears have had on medical care. For example, the frequency of one common emergency procedure for reopening arteries in heart attack patients is down by nearly 40 percent since the start of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S.

“COVID-19 is definitely not stopping people from having heart attacks, strokes and cardiac arrests,” the American Heart Association (AHA) and seven other national health organizations said in a joint statement. “We fear it is stopping people from going to the hospital, and that can be devastating.”

Calling 911 immediately is still your best chance of surviving a heart attack or stroke, the AHA says. Other symptoms and conditions that warrant emergency care include difficulty breathing, choking, a head or spine injury, ingestion of a poisonous substance, serious injury, uncontrolled bleeding, and any sudden or severe pain.

“If you feel like what’s going on with you or with a loved one is an emergency, please come to the emergency department,” says UNMC emergency physician Warchol. “We have plenty of measures in place to ensure your safety [with regard to] not transferring coronavirus from another patient to you.”

Myth: Ingesting disinfectants can help treat a coronavirus infection.

Disinfectants help to eliminate germs on surfaces. However, they do not treat an infection inside the body and, in fact, can cause serious harm.

In April, the CDC reported that calls to U.S. poison centers were up by about 20 percent this year, compared with last year, and that they “increased sharply” at the beginning of March, around the same time the virus started spreading in the U.S. The agency stresses that people using disinfectants should follow instructions on the label to reduce the risk of adverse health effects.

The WHO has also warned that bleach and any other disinfectant should not, “under any circumstance,” be sprayed or introduced into the body. “These substances can be poisonous if ingested and cause irritation and damage to your skin and eyes,” the organization says.

Currently there is no approved treatment for COVID-19. Several drug trials are ongoing, and one antiviral therapy, remdesivir, recently received emergency use authorization from the FDA to treat hospitalized patients.

Myth: Mosquitoes and ticks transmit the coronavirus.

The CDC says at this time it has no data to suggest that the coronavirus can be spread by mosquitoes or ticks. The main way the virus is thought to spread is from person to person, through respiratory droplets.

That said, mosquitoes and ticks can spread other diseases, including the Zika virus and Lyme disease. Clothing that covers your arms and legs can help minimize your risk of insect-borne illnesses — and so can insect repellents that have been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Reprinted from AARP. For the latest coronavirus news and advice go to AARP.org/coronavirus.

Beware of Counterfeit Stimulus Checks

Pandemic doesn’t deter criminals hungry for your cash and sensitive data

Fraudsters across the U.S. are sending counterfeit stimulus checks to people in an attempt to con them into paying an advance fee or turning over personal data, the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) warns.

“It’s fraud — it’s illegal,” Kathy Kraninger told AARP in an interview on pandemic-related frauds on the agency’s radar. The fraudsters sending fake checks could be after sensitive information, such as your bank routing number, says Kraninger, 45, a lawyer who has led the CFPB since 2018.

So-called “advance fee” fraud schemes aren’t new, but they adapt to the times. In the latest twist, crooks are trying to capitalize on Americans’ eagerness to receive their stimulus payments, made possible under a new law called the CARES Act, to make rash choices and divulge personal details that should be kept private.

On April 2, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) warned consumers that the tax agency would not call them and ask them to verify financial information to get a stimulus check — or to get it faster. The IRS cautioned that scammers might mail bogus paper checks and tell consumers to call a number or substantiate certain information online to cash it.

80 million stimulus payments delivered

More than 80 million stimulus payments — what the IRS calls economic impact payments — already have gone out to Americans via direct deposit, federal officials said Saturday, though some consumers still are waiting for theirs. The payments are up to $1,200 per individual, or up to $2,400 for a married couple. People with eligible dependents under 17 may qualify for an additional $500 payment per dependent. Paper checks are starting to go out this week.

Fraudsters who successfully obtain personally identifiable information such as a Social Security number can commit an array of financial crimes. According to the CFPB, federal agencies are working with the IRS to alert people to scams related to the stimulus payments. Key points from the consumer protection bureau:

  • Generally, the IRS will first contact you by mail, not by phone.
  • The IRS will not insist upon a payment through a prepaid debit card, gift card, money order, wire transfer or other vehicle.
  • Federal agencies with jurisdiction over such illegal practices will work “to stop these scammers and their ill-conceived practices and … enforce the law,” a CFPB spokeswoman says.

The CFPB, an independent agency headquartered near the White House, was begun in 2011 in the wake of the financial and housing crises and Great Recession. Most of its roughly 1,500 staff members, including Kraninger, now are teleworking as they strive to ensure that banks, credit unions, credit card issuers, lenders including mortgage firms, debt collectors and other financial firms treat their customers fairly.



Two more COVID-19 scams

The CFPB has issued alerts about two other kinds of COVID-19 fraud, advising:

  • Older Americans should be on guard against scammers who prey on them by offering to pick up groceries, medications or supplies — but run off with the cash and leave consumers empty-handed.
  • Online shoppers seeking in-demand products — such as medical or cleaning supplies — should avoid unfamiliar sellers on the internet who advertise such goods but in reality don’t have them. Use an established delivery service, order directly from a store or take advantage of grocers and pharmacies offering contactless delivery, the CFPB says.

Talking about fraud prevention, Kraninger, who hails from suburban Cleveland, says she’s counseled her parents to never provide information to someone over the phone or in an email. “Hang up the phone or go to a trusted source,” she says. If there’s a purported issue with a credit card, call the customer service phone number on the back of the card, Kraninger says, and don’t accept someone’s word that they represent the card issuer.

“We all get busy. We all get distracted,” she says. “You have to be incredibly skeptical and vigilant.”

Kraninger, who years ago helped start up the Department of Homeland Security after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, says despite cybersecurity training she once almost fell victim to a phishing scam. With phishing, a bad actor emails, calls or texts you to trick you into sending cash or disclosing personal information. Or the communication is intended to allow the perpetrator to infiltrate your computer and steal sensitive data.

The CFPB enforces 20 federal laws, including the Truth in Lending Act and Truth in Savings Act. With civil enforcement powers, it acts against predatory companies and has returned billions of dollars to harmed consumers. The agency also works to educate consumers to empower them to make informed financial decisions.

Reprinted from AARP Fraud Watch Network

Covid-19 Scams

Unfortunately, scammers are using the COVID-19 pandemic to try to steal your Medicare Number, personal information, and money. And they’re using robocalls, social media posts, and emails to do it. 

Remember, if anyone reaches out to get your Medicare Number or personal information in exchange for something, you can bet it’s a scam.

Prevent Medicare Fraud

Be on the lookout, so you can stop scams before they happen. Here are recent Coronavirus scams to watch for:

  • Robocalls offering you respiratory masks they’ll never send
  • Social media posts fraudulently seeking donations for non-existent charities, or claiming to give you stimulus funds if you enter your bank account information
  • Fake testing kits, cures, “immunity” pills, and offers for protective equipment

Visit Medicare.gov/fraud for more information and tips on preventing Medicare scams and fraud.

A Guide to Budgeting During the Pandemic

Thanks to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, much of the population is under some form of self-isolation, and millions are out of work as businesses shut down. For those newly unemployed, especially, the burning question is: How do I make ends meet?

To some extent, the coronavirus is a budgeting force. Fewer people are driving, which means many are having to fill their tanks less often. Some auto insurers are refunding premiums as more and more vehicles sit idle. And those who are driving frequently, perhaps delivering groceries or commuting to an essential job, are finding low prices at the pump — regular unleaded gasoline now averages $1.84 a gallon, according to AAA, down a dollar from a year ago.

The coronavirus distancing rules have effectively shuttered bars, restaurants, concert halls, movie theaters and shopping malls — all prime places to bust a budget. And if you were thinking about taking a vacation this spring, well, that money is going to stay in your pocket. For many people, then, the coronavirus restrictions have meant big savings.

“Well, I’m not driving much at all, so I’m saving on gas,” a visitor to the AARP Facebook page writes. “I’m not going out shopping except for picking up the groceries I purchased on the online app. Won’t be taking a vacation any time soon. Not getting together with friends for lunch or dinner. I’m not traveling to visit out of town family or friends. My gym is closed, so I’m sitting around the house getting fatter every day.”

Nevertheless, roughly 22 million Americans have filed for jobless benefits since the outbreak exploded a month ago. Even if you have more than one earner in the family, and even if you start to collect unemployment, a job loss is going to pinch your budget. Here’s what you can do about it.



Figure out your current cash flow

If you or someone in your family has been laid off because of the coronavirus, your first step is to see how much money — if any — you have coming in. If you have applied for unemployment benefits, for example, you should be aware that if your employer laid you off because of the coronavirus, you can get an additional $600 per week on top of the unemployment benefits your state offers. Gig workers and the self-employed are also eligible for these benefits. If you haven’t contacted your state unemployment office, now is the time to do so.

You may also be eligible for federal stimulus payments, which are already landing in some bank accounts. Individuals can get up to $1,200, and couples filing federal income taxes jointly can get up to $2,400. Those with dependent children under 17 can get up to $500 per eligible child. You can check with the IRS to see if your check is on the way, add information about dependents, or register for a stimulus check if you haven’t filed a 2018 or 2019 tax return.

As a last resort, you can consider tapping your savings. If you have an emergency fund, well, this is what emergency funds are made for. The CARES Act also allows you to take up to $100,000 from retirement funds — penalty-free, if you’re younger than 59 1/2. 

You’ll still have to pay taxes on your withdrawals, but you’ll have three years to pay those taxes, as well as three years to pay the plan back and avoid the taxes. Also, the limit on loans from retirement accounts has been increased to $100,000, from $50,000, and payments on both new and existing loans can be deferred for a year.

Prioritize your spending

Obviously, you need shelter and electricity, as well as food and water. And at least at the moment, corporations, lenders and landlords are in a forgiving mood, and many are allowing you a break on monthly bills.

Shelter

For most people, the largest monthly bill is their rent or mortgage. If you’re worried about making that mortgage payment, it’s time to reach for the phone and see if you can get what’s called forbearance: You and the lender agree to temporarily reduced or deferred mortgage payments, and the lender agrees not to foreclose during that time.

For example, if the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. (Freddie Mac) or the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) backs your mortgage — and they do for about 80 percent of mortgages — the mortgage giants may offer forbearance for up to 12 months. 

Both companies have also agreed to suspend evictions and foreclosure sales for 60 days, through mid-May.

You can check online to see if one of the mortgage giants owns your mortgage:

Fannie Mae: knowyouroptions.com/loanlookup

Search Freddie Mac: ww3.freddiemac.com/loanlookup/

If you’re a renter, you may also get some relief. If you live in an apartment and your landlord gets mortgage relief because of the coronavirus outbreak, you can’t be evicted for 90 days if you can’t pay rent due to your own coronavirus hardship. Some cities, such as Los Angeles, Boston and New York, are putting halts on evictions. But if you’re not covered by a state or municipal ban on evictions, talk to your landlord as soon as possible to discuss your options.


For the latest coronavirus news and advice go to AARP.org/coronavirus.


Utilities

Many utilities are also offering breaks to those who are laid off because of the coronavirus. Many will offer payment extensions and waive late-payment fees, although you’ll eventually have to make up those payments. And dozens of wireless telephone and internet providers have signed a pledge to not to disconnect any customers for the next 60 days, to waive any late fees and to open Wi-Fi hot spots to anyone who needs them. 

But you have to make arrangements. “I had to send an email to my cable company to let them know that I am waiting for my stimulus direct deposit to pay my bill,” one AARP Facebook page visitor from Wisconsin wrote.

Food and other essentials

You need food to live, but it’s tougher to find a bargain when many stores are closed, or if you rely on a delivery service. “Buying same grocery items as always, but paying MORE for the same stuff,” writes an AARP Facebook page visitor. “I know, folks, because I really watch what I pay for things.”

And food prices are one thing that’s squeezing people in the time of the coronavirus. To get food from farm to table relies on lots of workers, many of whom are falling ill to COVID-19. One of the largest pork processing plants in the country, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was closed as numerous workers tested positive for the coronavirus. Egg prices in some areas are up 300 to 400 percent. “Eggs are NOT affordable,” one Facebook visitor writes.

Normal budgeting advice is to look for sales and use coupons when you shop for food. But stores aren’t giving much away these days, and even careful shoppers are having a hard time finding bargains. “My normal shopping is buying extra of what’s on sale,” one AARP Facebook visitor says. “Now our choices are extremely limited, and it’s a take it or leave it situation. We have to pay more to eat.”

Rather than look for daily deals, it might make sense to go for lower-priced foods, if possible. Try chicken rather than steak, generic rather than name brands, canned veggies over fresh. The savings can add up.

Reprinted from AARP

Telehealth For Seniors

I received this email yesterday. It contains some very valuable information so I thought I would post it here. Stay safe.

As you are aware, this is quite a challenging time for our nation. Amid a pandemic that affects all of us, it is senior citizens and the disadvantaged that are most at risk of severe side-effects and even death. Our first duty as a nation is the protection of our citizens. Although governments and private citizens are doing as much as they can, there are particular areas for aid that may be overlooked in our pandemic response. One of these is access to telemedicine for senior citizens.
A group of students at Yale University have founded a 501(c)(3) non-profit called Telehealth Access for Seniors and have asked me to lead their statewide efforts in Maine. We are partnering with VA Hospitals, assisted living facilities, and primary care providers all across the state, providing them with old/used electronic devices free of charge to provide telehealth services to senior citizens and low-income individuals so they can ensure all their medical needs are met without compromising social-distancing measures. Telemedicine will make it easier for senior citizens to report symptoms to their doctors faster, allowing them to receive more rapid treatment and reducing the risk of fatal complications. For more information, please check out our website at telehealthforseniors.org. In addition to Maine, we operate in 11 other states and the District of Columbia. 
Many of us in this community may have old devices at home that are not being used. If you have such a device capable of video chat (whether through FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, or other application) that you are willing to donate so we may send it to a VA Hospital or primary care provider, please fill out the device donation form or send me an email (or both!) Devices include iPhones, iPads, laptops, Android phones, and Android tablets. If you are able to donate, I will be in contact with you shortly to give you instructions on how to prepare your device.
If you want to help out, but do not have a device at home, please consider donating to our GoFundMe page. We will use these funds to buy devices, as well as chargers for devices that do not come with them. We appreciate any amount you can give, and every dollar is used to provide devices to senior citizens. Finally, if you are unable to donate money or a device, please consider volunteering with us. If you are interested, just send me an email to that regard and I can get you started. Thank you for your time, and I hope to make a difference with all of you. It is up to us, in our own individual ways, to get through this pandemic, but by working together we can make a difference. Let’s change the world. Stay safe,
Jay Philbrick

Coronavirus Scams


Money and virus - the cost of epidemic protection concept

 Coronavirus scams are spreading nearly as fast as the virus itself.

As of April 16, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had received 20,334 consumer complaints related to the outbreak, including more than 11,000 fraud complaints. Victims have reported losses of $15.6 million, with a median loss of $559.

Fraudsters are using the full suite of scam tools — phishing emails and texts, robocallsimpostor schemes and more — and closely following the headlines, adapting their messages and tactics as new medical and economic concerns arise. For example, as coronavirus testing has ramped up in recent weeks, fake testing sites popped up in several states.

Here are some other types of coronavirus scams scams to look out for.

In-demand products and bogus cures

No vaccines or drugs have been approved specifically to treat or prevent COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. That hasn’t stopped fraudsters from flooding consumers with pitches for phony remedies.

The FTC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have sent more than 40 warnings to companies selling unapproved products they claim can cure or prevent COVID-19 and shut down a website that was promoting a nonexistent vaccine,.

Teas, essential oils, cannabinol, colloidol silver and intravenous vitamin-C therapies are among supposed antiviral treatments hawked in clinics and on websites, social media and television shows as defenses against the pandemic.

Other scammers claim to be selling or offering in-demand supplies such as surgical masks, test kits and household cleaners, often in robocalls, texts or social media ads. The FTC has issued warnings to companies suspected of abetting coronavirus robocalls, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set up a dedicated website with information on COVID-19 phone scams.

Financial phonies

More on Coronavirus

Woman washing her soapy hands in a bathroom

JODI JACOBSON/GETTY IMAGES

With most Americans set to receive stimulus checks under the federal CARES Act, the Internal Revenue Service is warning of a wave of schemes promising to speed up your payment. Watch out for calls or emails, purportedly from government agencies, that use the term “stimulus” (the official term is “economic-impact payment”) and ask you to sign over a check or provide personal information like your Social Security number.

Other coronavirus financial scams target small businesses with promises of quick capital or help with Google search results. With unemployment and economic anxiety rising, crooks impersonating banks and lenders are offering bogus help with bills, credit card debt or student loan forgiveness.

The outbreak has also spawned stock scams. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is warning investors about fraudsters touting investments in companies with products that supposedly can prevent, detect or cure COVID-19. Buy those stocks now, they say, and they will soar in price.

It’s a classic penny-stock fraud called “pump and dump.” The con artists have already bought the stocks, typically for a dollar or less. As the hype grows and the stock price increases, they dump the stock, saddling other investors with big losses.

Phishing scams

The coronavirus scams don’t stop with fake cures and bogus stock pitches. Check Point, a cybersecurity firm, notes that coronavirus websites — those with “coronavirus” or “covid” in the domain name — are 50 percent more likely to be malicious than other domains.

The trap is triggered when you contact those malicious domains: You could start getting phishing emails from fraudsters in an attempt either to plant malware on your computer or to get your personal information. Google reported in mid-April that its Gmail platform was blocking 18 million such messages a day. 

These emails often appear to be from real businesses or government agencies. If you click on a link or download an attached file, you could be importing a program that uses your internet connection to spread more malware, or digs into your personal files looking for passwords and other information for purposes of identity theft.

Be careful when you browse for information about coronavirus. Developing and testing vaccines for viruses takes a long time, and you’ll hear about them first from a legitimate source, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the World Health Organization (WHO).

And make sure you are going to the genuine CDC and WHO websites: Scammers are impersonating them, too.

Reprinted from AARP.com

Sewing Masks for Maine

We’re mobilizing a statewide network of volunteers to make and donate cloth masks to Maine’s healthcare organizations, and we need your help.Mainers are tough. We weather storms together together and take care of our neighbors. And Mainers are coming together in a big way right now. It has been incredible to witness. Our grassroots volunteer network has made, stitched, and donated more than 4,300 masks in 26 days. Healthcare providers take care of us when we’re sick, and we’re working hard to take care of them right now.

In order to meet the enormous need for masks across the state, we need to find more stitchers- especially in Central Maine. Franklin, Hancock, Piscataquis, and Somerset counties have particular need for mask makers.

Could you please take a moment and forward this email to your quilter, seamstress, tailor, stitcher, or sewing friends? Our website has all of the information to sew masks, donate approved material, or help us pick up and deliver masks .Sewing Masks for Maine Website

IRS Warns Consumers of Stimulus Check Scams

IMen hands holding a US Government Treasury check

If you get a call, email, text or social media message saying the Internal Revenue Service needs money or some personal information before sending your income-tax refund or stimulus payment, don’t respond. It’s a scam, federal officials said Thursday, in a new alert to taxpayers.

“We urge people to take extra care during this period,” IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig warned. “The IRS isn’t going to call you asking to verify or provide your financial information so you can get an economic-impact payment or your refund faster. That also applies to surprise emails that appear to be coming from the IRS. Remember, don’t open them or click on attachments or links.”


For the latest coronavirus news and advice go to AARP.org/coronavirus.


The IRS and its criminal investigation division have seen a wave of new schemes that criminals are devising to cheat Americans by using the stimulus checks as a way to gain access to their personal identifying information. “History has shown that criminals take every opportunity to perpetrate a fraud on unsuspecting victims, especially when a group of people is vulnerable or in a state of need,” said Don Fort, chief of the criminal investigation division. “While you are waiting to hear about your economic-impact payment, criminals are working hard to trick you into getting their hands on it. The IRS criminal investigation division is working hard to find these scammers and shut them down, but in the meantime, we ask people to remain vigilant.”

If you already have a 2018 or 2019 federal tax return on file and are eligible for a stimulus payment under the CARES Act, the IRS will deposit your payment directly into the bank account you listed on your return. Social Security recipients and railroad retirees will automatically receive a $1,200 stimulus payment the same way they receive monthly benefits, even if they didn’t file a return for 2018 or 2019. The IRS says it will get the information for those recipients from annual 1099 benefit statements. If you need to provide bank account information, there will be a secure portal set up on IRS.gov by the middle of April that will allow you to do so. If you don’t provide your bank account information, a check will be mailed to your address on file, according to the agency. Officials warn Americans not to give banking information to strangers who offer to put that information into the IRS system for them.

Here are signs a swindler wants your cash

  • The caller or emailer uses the words “stimulus check” or “stimulus payment.” The term that government officials are using is “economic-impact payment.”
  • You’re asked to sign your check over to the caller.
  • You receive an email, text or social media message saying that you need to verify your personal and/or banking information to speed up your stimulus payment.
  • The individual offers to get you your payment faster.
  • You receive a fake check, and then the sender tells you to call a number to verify your personal information in order to cash it.

Report potential scams

If you receive unsolicited information-gathering emails, texts or social media messages that appear to be from the IRS or an organization closely linked to the agency, such as the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System, forward them to phishing@irs.gov.

Taxpayers are also cautioned not to interact with potential scammers online or over the phone. Learn more about reporting suspected scams by going to the Report Phishing and Online Scams page at IRS.gov.

Official IRS information about the COVID-19 pandemic and economic-impact payments can be found on the Coronavirus Tax Relief page at IRS.gov.

Fraudsters Posing as Taxpayer Advocacy Panel

Fraudsters Posing as Taxpayer Advocacy Panel

Some taxpayers receive emails that appear to be from the Taxpayer Advocacy Panel (TAP) about a tax refund. These emails are a phishing scam, trying to trick victims into providing personal and financial information. Do not respond or click any link. If you receive this scam, forward it to phishing@irs.gov and note that it seems to be a scam phishing for your information.

TAP is a volunteer board that advises the IRS on systemic issues affecting taxpayers. It never requests, and does not have access to, any taxpayer’s personal and financial information.