By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - Authorities in California shut down 10 fake Obamacare websites, amid nationwide concern among law enforcement officials about potential fraud during the program's rollout, the state's attorney general said on Thursday.
The sites, which mimicked the official "Covered California" affordable health insurance website, were removed from the internet in an effort to stop fraud connected to the rollout, said a spokesman for California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who ordered the sites to close after a month-long investigation.
"These websites fraudulently imitated Covered California in order to lure consumers away from plans that provide the benefits of the Affordable Care Act," Harris said in a statement. "My office will continue to investigate and shut down these kinds of sites."
The extent of fraud related to the Affordable Care Act is not yet clear. But Harris' spokesman, Nicholas Pacilio, said that attorneys general from several states have been participating in regular conference calls on the subject.
In September, Better Business Bureaus nationwide warned that fraudulent telemarketers were calling consumers pretending to offer information about the Affordable Care Act in an effort to obtain personal information for identity theft.
In the California case, the websites used names meant to evoke the state's own insurance exchange, such as "Californiahealthbenefitexchange.com," Harris said.
Consumers who used internet search programs such as Google to find the Covered California site were presented with ads for the fake sites instead, some of them using the exchange's logo and using its name.
But instead of directing users to the site of the state's insurance exchange, where they could purchase policies approved under the new law and possibly qualify for a federal subsidy, the ads took consumers to the websites of private insurance companies and brokers.
Harris warned consumers who wish to sign up to go directly to the state's site, which is https://www.coveredca.com. She said policies offered outside the exchanges may not have the consumer protections required by the Affordable Care Act and may not be eligible for subsidies.
Harris did not disclose the names of the businesses involved, other than to list the now-shut website names.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Leslie Gevirtz)