Officials warn of scams targeting Native Americans after alarming TikTok video

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Native Americans in New Mexico are going missing at an alarming rate, due in part to what officials call a multi-million dollar health care scam.

Law enforcement agencies gathered Wednesday to discuss this. These discussions began over a TikTok video, allegedly showing how vulnerable, older Native Americans can fall victim to scams.

In the video, recorded in Gallup and posted last week, a man confronts the alleged scammers. He tries to prevent an elder from getting inside the truck.

The man in the truck appears to try to scam these guys, saying they’ll take the elder to a care home in Phoenix. The elder doesn’t realize something is terribly wrong until the guy behind the camera speaks to him in Navajo. Then, the elder gets out of the truck.

This is just one of thousands of similar reports law enforcement is looking into.

Gallup Mayor Louis Bonaguidi says it’s a health care scam for Arizona and a human trafficking scheme in New Mexico.

“It’s not only happening in Gallup, it’s happening in Farmington. It’s happening in Albuquerque, it’s happening all over,” Mayor Bonaguidi said.

Still, being closest to Arizona, Gallup Police Chief Erin Toadlena-Pablo says they’re seeing the worst of it.

“Gallup Police Department has looked into 32 reports of missing person cases, suspected of being taken to the Phoenix area. 18 of those cases have been closed, and 14 are still active,” Chief Toadlena-Pablo said.

Here’s how police say the scam works:

Scammers target vulnerable Native Americans, promising to take them off the reservation and give them food, shelter and treatment in Arizona. Then, they take advantage of Arizona’s Medicaid benefits – or AHCCCS – which pays for these fake treatment centers.

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs said AHCCCS paid out $53 million in 2019 to the fake centers. This year, Gov. Hobbs said it rose to $668 million.

In this instance, Navajo Nation Council Delegate Dr. Andy Nez went back to the TikTok video to stress the importance of knowing the Navajo language.

“It was actually until there was an individual that came in and used the Navajo language. That’s when that gentleman took off,” Dr. Nez said.

Chief Toadlena-Pablo says it’s a race against time to save their people.

“We really do only have one shot to gather as much information as we can on these missing person cases. Time is essential,” she said.