State officials are warning Medicare beneficiaries not to be fooled by deceptive advertising and sales offers during the current shopping season for health plans.

One of the big concerns is that beneficiaries recognize what information is coming from Medicare or a legitimate insurance company or agent, vs. information that might be from "a scam artist trying to steal your money," the state Commerce Department said Wednesday in a news release.

Next year, a popular form of coverage known as the Medicare Cost health plan is ending across 66 counties in the state, pushing more than 300,000 Minnesotans to find a new health plan for 2019.

"We have had some complaints about potentially misleading advertisements and sales solicitations," said Ross Corson, a Commerce Department spokesman, via e-mail on Wednesday. The department's alert to consumers is "a preventive measure," Corson said.

Open enrollment for Medicare health plans started Oct. 15 and runs through Dec. 7. It's the shopping season for those losing their Cost plans, plus the general Medicare population.

There's been a spike in legitimate Medicare marketing in recent weeks, as insurance companies try to woo seniors with Medicare Advantage health plans as well as Medigap supplementary policies that work with original Medicare. Carriers also have launched more Part D prescription drug plans, which also work in conjunction with original Medicare.

Commerce offered a series of tips for consumers.

"When looking for Medicare on the internet, make sure you go to the official website at Medicare.gov," the agency said. "Don't be fooled by private websites with similar addresses such as Medicare.com, Medicare.org and Medicare.net."

Medicare shoppers should read the fine print and not be deceived by appearances, since some advertisements and sales materials may look like they are from Medicare. "If it is misleading in appearance, it may also be misleading in what it is really offering," the department said.

The state agency said consumers should not believe any agent who claims to work for Medicare, or any advertising that claims to offer plans "sponsored" or "endorsed" by Medicare, which is the massive federal government health insurance program for people age 65 and older plus certain groups of younger people.

"Hang up on any phone calls, either live or recorded, trying to sell you a Medicare plan," Commerce said. "Insurance companies and agents are not permitted to make unsolicited Medicare-related calls."

Federal law is forcing health insurers next year to eliminate Medicare Cost plans across 66 counties in Minnesota. The elimination of these health plans is prompting an unusually large number of beneficiaries — more than 300,000 people in the state — to switch coverage all at once.

When the Cost plans go away, some enrollees will be steered toward a comparable Medicare Advantage plan from their existing health insurer. Cost and Advantage plans are similar in providing Medicare benefits via private insurers, but differ in how insurers get paid by the government.

Not all Cost plan enrollees will be steered to an Advantage plan, and those who are can make other choices. Another option is original Medicare, where consumers often buy a Medigap policy and a Part D prescription drug plan to supplement the traditional government insurance program.

A Star Tribune analysis in October showed the number of Advantage, Medigap and Part D plans is on the rise, although there tend to be more choices in the Twin Cities than in many greater Minnesota counties. What's more, the Advantage plans have more limits on which doctors and hospitals are available to subscribers at in-network rates.

Minnesotans can call the state's Senior LinkAge Line for free help in understanding Medicare choices at 1-800-333-2433.

People who think they have received a Medicare advertisement or sales solicitation that's deceptive, misleading or a scam can report it to the Minnesota Commerce Department by e-mail at consumer.protection@state.mn.us or by phone at 651-539-1600 or 1-800-657-3602 (greater Minnesota).