Medical Identity Theft: The Fraud That Can Kill You
Think I'm trying to scare you? I am.
According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, as much as 43 percent of identity theft is medical identity theft. It affected an estimated 1.84 million Americans in 2013. According to the Ponemon Institute, cyberattacks on health care providers have doubled since 2010. In response to this surge in the crime, the Medical Identity Fraud Alliance, a public/private alliance including the Consumer Federation of America, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, the AARP, and others, formed in 2013.
The average victim was on the hook for more than $22,000, and it took them more than a year to successfully dispute the charges, clear up their medical records, and repair the damage to their credit. Some victims have had their insurance canceled, often because criminals racked up claims exceeding the policy's lifetime maximum payouts. (Fortunately, the Affordable Care Act outlawed those lifetime caps, so that issue, at least, will no longer affect either identity theft victims or those with genuine chronic conditions.)
%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Criminals can access your personal data to perpetrate any number of forms of identity theft. In late March, a Florida woman was charged with filing $4 million in fraudulent income tax returns from data she obtained from a local health department. And most of us know someone whose credit card or bank account has been scammed -- cons that usually come to light fairly rapidly. What's more insidious about medical identity theft is that it can go unnoticed for years, until the policy holder has a health crisis or a collection agency starts calling.
An Ounce of Prevention
The Federal Trade Commission offers these strategies to protect yourself:
- Always check any medical bills or Explanations of Benefits you receive. Some years ago, I received a bill for one of my children from her ear, nose and throat specialist, and knew it was wrong. I contacted the doctor's office, and indeed, someone else had gotten care under her name. In this case, little damage was done.
- Never share your health insurance card with anyone, including friends or family not on the policy. It is illegal and could compromise your coverage.
- Shred medical documents just as you would any other sensitive financial information that you discard. Obliterate or destroy prescription information from pill bottles or receipts before you throw them away.
- Check your credit report once a year with the three big agencies. Also it's a good idea to request a list of benefits paid from your insurer.
- Protect your health insurance card as carefully as you would your Social Security or credit cards. If you lose it, immediately contact your insurance company. If it is stolen with other identity cards, include its loss in any police report.
- Seniors need to be especially cautious: Medicare cards are like gold because personal information like your Social Security number,"can be stolen and sold to unscrupulous individuals," according to the AARP. Also caution those undergoing extensive treatment, who may not notice fraudulent charges in a lengthy list.
- Follow up on headlines. If there are stories in the media about hacking or data theft involving companies you use, don't wait to be told if you were affected: Ask. Almost a third of cases of medical identity theft originate at the provider's end. Many have access to your personal information.
Diagnose and Treat the Problem Early
- If you don't recognize a charge from a doctor or a service on an Explanation of Benefits form, contact the provider and insurance company immediately. Note whom you talked to and when. As is the case in dealing with any other form of identity theft, saving copies of all your written correspondence and bills is crucial to getting the problem rectified. Being able to referring to a specific date, person, and exact wording will help you navigate the maze of insurers, providers, and credit card companies and rating agencies
- You may need to contact the police and get a police report. Again, as is the case with any other identity theft issue, contact the big three credit reporting agencies.
- If someone has used your identity to obtain medical care, talk to your providers about the accuracy of your medical records. Requesting a copy of medical records is a step that's highly recommended by the World Privacy Forum. This will likely be the most complicated step, thanks to medical privacy laws, and there may be fees for the records.
I can't stress this enough. Be sure friends and family are careful with their cards and information, especially the elderly and family members on your policy who live away from home. Tell them about these recommendations to protect themselves and their peace of mind.