Medicare Advantage Annual Election Period Creates Opportunities for Seniors to Earn Extra Income via Mystery Shopping with TrendSource

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Open Enrollment for Medicare Advantage Plans began October 15th and will continue through December 7th. This is known as the Annual Election Period (AEP), when eligible individuals can cancel or obtain new Medicare Advantage Insurance Coverage, and TrendSource engages mystery shoppers to identify unethical sales tactics by insurance agents during this time.

Mystery Shopping, Market Research & Data Analysis

Mystery Shopping, Market Research & Data Analysis

Insurance companies want to know that their agents are not going to get them into trouble and compromise the integrity of their organization.

The Annual Election Period provides thousands of eligible seniors (55+) the opportunity to earn extra income by participating in surveillance programs conducted for insurance companies.

“We are actively recruiting,” said Patrice Cannataro, head of surveillance recruiting for TrendSource, in a phone interview. “There is plenty of work out there.” TrendSource, Inc. and other similar firms conduct surveillance programs, also known as “secret shopper” or “mystery shopping programs,” for insurance companies. These programs are carried out to help ensure that insurance sales agents do not use prohibited deceptive and high-pressure marketing tactics.

“There really isn’t anything hard about it,” said Carolyn Cornaghie, a retiree in Houston, TX who has been participating as a ‘secret shopper’ for years. She explained the three different ways a secret shopper can participate, “There are planned events, where you go and sit down and listen to a speaker. Those take about an hour and a half, then you come back and put the report in the computer. They have kiosk events where you just stop by and ask questions and those only take about 30 minutes, and/or you can do phone call jobs to customer service departments.”

“Insurance companies want to know that their agents are not going to get them into trouble and compromise the integrity of their organization,” said Cannataro. In 2011, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), which regulates insurance companies that sell Medicare Advantage plans, issued severe fines to insurance companies for violating federally regulated marketing and sales guidelines.

According to Cannataro, “They can go beyond just fines. CMS can also revoke the ability of the insurer to sell their plans, so this really is important work that not only helps make sure that sales agents don’t take advantage of seniors, but helps the insurance companies as well.”

CMS audits insurance agents’ sales practices by sending CMS personnel or third party contractors to anonymously attend sales and marketing events to detect potential violations. If infractions are found, CMS determines what type of sanction will be applied, based on the number and seriousness of violations discovered.

“CMS recommends that insurers develop their own surveillance programs,” Cannataro said “in order monitor agent performance and correct issues before they are detected by CMS auditors.” As a result, many insurance companies contract with firms like TrendSource that specialize in planning and carrying out these programs. “We recruit people to meet with sales agents or attend marketing events and report back to us on their experiences. This creates thousands of part-time job opportunities for seniors across the country as they are recruited to carry out surveillance assignments,” Cannataro explained. “Another benefit for the people who take on these assignments is that they are paid to learn about Medicare Advantage Plans.”

“What I liked about it,” said secret shopper Cornaghie, “is I was honestly interested in Part C Advantage plan. You know insurance is kind of confusing…to me it is… so by going to several of these [events], I got really educated on it for my own self. Before attending, I was totally in the dark on Plan C. I knew about A, B, and D but not the Advantage. I ended up signing up for Plan C because it was perfect for me and my husband… so everything I learned was good and helpful, personally.”

“Each year companies providing this service are challenged to find enough people within the 55+ age requirement to conduct all the surveillance observations that insurance companies would like to have carried out,” Cannataro said, “and business is higher this year than it was in 2011.”

Each year companies like TrendSource pay hundreds of eligible individuals to meet with sales agents, learn more about Medicare Advantage Plans and report their experiences. This information is provided back to the insurance companies handling Medicare Advantage Plans so they can track sales agent performance and monitor compliance.

“You’re not going to get rich doing this; it’s just kind of a fun thing to do and you make a little extra money doing it,” said Cornaghie, who seemed to get a much greater satisfaction in knowing that her involvement in these programs is helping the government regulate service providers and protect consumers from deceptive and/or high-pressure marketing tactics. She explained, “The government is very interested in making sure that these people are saying what they are supposed to say, and it was interesting to see what they were looking for - what they don’t want these agents to do.”

When asked if she would continue participating, Cornaghie replied, “I just took my test over the weekend, so I’m renewed, I’m ready to go. I’m looking forward to it!”

For more information on secret shopper programs, visit

What is a Medicare Advantage Plan?

Medicare Advantage plans are health plan options (like an HMO) that are approved by Medicare and are offered by private insurance companies. They provide Medicare Part A, Part B, and often Part D (prescription drug) coverage under one policy. Medicare Advantage (MA) plans may also be referred to as “Part C”.

Who is Eligible?

In general, if an individual is entitled to Medicare benefits under Part A, and is enrolled in Medicare Part B, they are eligible for Medicare Advantage plans. However, to be an auditor, one must only meet the age requirement of 55+ as there is no obligation whatsoever to actually enroll in a health plan.

There are lots of plans out there and many ways to learn about available options to decide if one is right for you. Resources include:

  •     800 Call Centers
  •     Formal Marketing Events
  •     Informal Marketing Events
  •     In home or public space 1-on-1 appointments
  •     Educational Events

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Kristina Dent
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