Tens of millions of older Americans rely on Medicare to help them pay their healthcare expenses. Yet because older people are especially vulnerable to criminals who want to take advantage of them, many con artists like to target them by pretending to be affiliated with the Medicare program.

Ironically, it was the fear of identity theft and other fraud that prompted government officials to change the design of the Medicare card. Yet as program participants have started to receive the new cards in the mail, new scams have arisen that could potentially snare thousands of older Americans. Some of the tactics that con artists take to try to obtain money or key personal information from Medicare participants are particularly crafty, and so it helps to know in advance what to expect so you'll know that it's a scam if someone tries to trick you.

New and old versions of Medicare cards.

Image source: Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The reason behind sending out new Medicare cards

Some seniors might wonder why they have to deal with a new Medicare card in the first place. The answer lies in action from federal lawmakers three years ago, which required the agency that runs Medicare to come up with a new card design that doesn't include the Social Security number of its participants. Social Security numbers are a vital piece of information that scammers can use as part of broader identity theft operations, and taking them off a card that many retirees carry with them all the time was a big move forward in fighting both Medicare-specific fraud and broader financial identity theft.

Instead, the new card will have a Medicare Beneficiary Identifier, which is a combination of numbers and letters that will tie into your Medicare benefits and records. With 11 characters, the Medicare Beneficiary Identifier won't look anything like your Social Security number, and so that should limit any consequences of losing your new Medicare card to Medicare-specific fraud related to healthcare and benefit information. That's a vast improvement over the potential theft of credit cards, banking services, and other wider-ranging financial identity theft.

What's happening to those getting new cards

The first cards started going to Medicare recipients earlier this month, with those in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia being the first of seven groups of new card shipments that will take place over the next year. Those who live in Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon, and various Pacific U.S. territories should get their cards by June.

Unfortunately, scammers are now focusing on those who've gotten their cards, making false claims that seniors need to take action in order to keep their Medicare coverage. One scam involves falsely stating that you have to pay for your new Medicare card, soliciting payment to a criminal enterprise. Other scams are even more aggressive, falsely claiming that you need to provide bank and credit card information in order to update Medicare's records or to process a refund in exchange for your old Medicare card.

Even those who haven't gotten their cards yet are vulnerable to scams. Some con artists claim to be calling on behalf of Medicare and say that in order to receive your card, you need to confirm your Social Security number.

All of these scams look either for an immediate payoff or for vital personal information that can be used for identity theft. Giving any information can be devastating to your finances.

How to handle scams

Fortunately, it's easy to deal with con artists when they try to take advantage of you. Because Medicare never contacts you by phone, any phone call you get claiming to be from Medicare is a scam. Don't even talk to the person; just hang up the phone without providing any personal or financial information.

In addition, your new Medicare card is just as important as any other primary identification, and so you'll want to be careful with it. If it's lost or stolen, you'll want to report it immediately, just as you would with any other form of ID.

Be prepared

Scams are a fact of life, and older Americans are vulnerable. If you or someone you love uses Medicare, be sure they know about these potential scams and are prepared to take the steps they need to take in order to protect themselves.