Oct. 20--Insurance regulators in some states are cautioning consumers to be aware of lookalike or soundalike websites that may mislead them into thinking they are on official Affordable Care Act state or federal government websites.
New Hampshire, for instance, issued a cease-and-desist order on Oct. 9 to an Arizona insurance broker who owned a website "newhampshirehealthexchange.com" that "deceived" at least one consumer into thinking it was the official government site.
Misleading websites also have come under scrutiny in Washington state and Pennsylvania.
The official Affordable Care Act website is healthcare.gov, which provides links to both state-run and federal-run insurance exchanges or marketplaces.
Because Virginia opted not to set up a state exchange, Virginians have to go to healthcare.gov to shop for health plans.
Virginia insurance regulators are aware of the concerns about misleading insurance exchange websites, but have not had to tell anyone to take down a website.
"To date, the Bureau of Insurance has not received any such complaints about misleading health exchange websites from Virginians," Kenneth Schrad, director of the State Corporation Commission's Division of Information Resources, explained in an email.
"As always, the Bureau of Insurance is prepared to look into the actions of any licensed insurance carrier, insurance agent or broker to ensure compliance with state law, including those state laws which have incorporated the provisions of the Affordable Care Act," he said.
The Virginia Attorney General's office also mentioned potential bogus websites in a warning Wednesday about Affordable Care Act scams being perpetrated by phone and emails.
"Scammers are sending out official-looking emails with links that don't go to the health insurance exchange, but to a bogus website," Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli warned in a consumer alert. "While people think they're typing in detailed personal information to apply for health insurance, they're actually giving scammers all the information they need to commit identity theft."
Organizations such as the National Association of Insurance Commissioners and the Better Business Bureau also have issued alerts to consumers to be aware of websites that may not be what they seem.
"What we will be dealing with are two separate kinds of issues," explained Ted Clark, who, as director of anti-fraud for the Kansas Insurance Department, is on the lookout for misleading websites.
"One (issue) being a fraudulent website that is up for criminal purposes -- identity theft or stolen premium, one of the two," he said. "The other kind of thing that we are concerned about are websites that mimic the legitimate exchange websites that are being used for marketing purposes for insurance. One would be a civil kind of an action. The other would be a purely criminal kind of a situation."
Brokers and others sensing opportunity snapped up web domain names that sounded like they could be official government websites.
Google "Virginia health insurance exchange" for instance, and the top links are to private websites.
Chesterfield County insurance agent Lee Biedrycki said his soundalike and lookalike website TheVirginiahealthinsuranceexchange.com, which some might consider misleading, has been reviewed by state regulators.
The website is a privately run insurance exchange where customers can shop for health plans, he said. It was supposed to launch when the Affordable Care Act marketplaces rolled out, but has been held up by those glitches plus efforts to enhance it, Biedrycki said.
"We were told we get to keep our name," Biedrycki said last week, referring to the outcome of a state Insurance Bureau visit in early October.
"They recommended we go out of our way to make sure people know they are not on the federal site. We have modified our logo. On the top it says 'privately owned marketplace alternative.' "
Schrad said the division "cannot confirm nor deny such a review or visit" took place.
Biedrycki's website's predominant colors are tones of blue, green and black just like the official healthcare.gov website. There is a disclaimer in smaller print on it that says it is not the official government website, and there is a link to healthcare.gov.
"We originally started building our exchange to deal with group employers," Biedrycki said. "We started way before the president was even re-elected because business was awfully encumbered by an antiquated benefit management system."
Biedrycki said he acquired the domain name about the time the federal government shifted from calling the online health plan shopping hubs exchanges to calling them marketplaces. Virginiahealthinsuranceexchange.com was already taken, he said.
"I don't doubt there is a lot of shadiness going on," Biedrycki said. "Everything we have done has been proper, approved by the state, our license, filings. We have approved connectivity to the federal hub," he said, explaining that people who come to his site will be able to see the same information available on the federal website.
"If you have a tool and you meet the federal government's standard, they can allow you access to their hub and then you can pull plan designs and rates straight from the hub," Biedrycki said.
According to federal health officials, consumer fraud experts from state and federal agencies are meeting on a regular basis to monitor for fraud in the insurance marketplaces.