"What's encouraging is that there are things people can do to protect themselves from medigap abuses," says Mercedes Bern, who recently began the United Seniors Health Cooperative's "Medi-scare Campaign" to make better insurance consumers of older Americans. "People hate to hear it but, first and foremost, you've got to get a handle on your Medicare benefits. If you don't know what you've got with Medicare you are a sitting duck." Among other tips:

Don't rush a buying decision -- and don't be rushed by a high-pressure agent. And, Bern says, anyone has a legal right to return a policy for a full refund within 10 days if purchased from an agent and within 30 days if purchased through the mail. The Better Business Bureau recommends consumers get a copy of the policy or a summary of its coverages and evaluate it without the agent present before deciding to buy or not.

If you have the option, continue the health insurance coverage that covered you as an employe into your retirement years. "Chances are they're a better deal," says Bern.

Avoid over-the-telephone solicitations for once-in-a-lifetime offers, maximum protection policies for minimum payments, and any offer requiring you to send in a cashiers check or money order immediately or you lose the opportunity.

Many sales pitches are designed to make consumers embarrassed to ask questions. Don't be. Never buy an insurance policy until you are satisfied with all the answers you get.

Beware of attempts to lead you into thinking a mail solicitation is from the federal government. Some companies use official-looking emblems, envelopes and stationery.

Don't assume an insurance policy is credible just because a TV personality is hawking it. Check out the coverge carefully.

"One comprehensive medigap policy is better that two or more mediocre ones," says Bern.

Report any unscrupulous sales agent tactics or policy problems to your state insurance commission. In Maryland, call 800-492-6116 or 301-333-2792. In Virginia, call 800-952-7945 or 804-786-7691. In the District, call the D.C. Office of Compliance at 727-7104.