How medical identity theft affects you and what you can do about it: Internet Scambusters #293
Today we have a special issue about something we've never covered before: medical identity theft. Everyone should read this issue and share it with the people they care about.
As a Scambusters subscriber, you know quite a bit about the kind of identity theft where a person steals credit card or bank information to drain cash away from your accounts.
But when someone assumes your identity in order to collect money, prescription drugs, or health services, it can affect your health as much as your wallet.
According to WebMD.com, up to 500,000 people in the US alone may be victims of medical identity theft -- and not even be aware of the problem!
On to today's special issue..
Medical Identity Theft: A Scary Form of Identity Theft Few People Even Know About
What do your medical records say about you? That you're allergic to penicillin? That you're blood type A positive? Things a doctor would need to know if you were being treated in an emergency?
What if the records were changed?
What if they said you've over-ordered a prescription for a controlled substance? Or that you've maxed out your medical benefits with expensive elective surgery charges?
These changes could include things that could keep you from being treated correctly (or at all) in the future.
When you're a victim of medical identity theft, you lose more than just money. Information that health care providers depend upon to make medical decisions for you can become corrupted.
Medical identity theft is harder to detect, harder to recover from and has more serious consequences than traditional identity theft (which is bad enough!).
"People can die from this crime," said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, in a 2007 interview with Bankrate. "It is a potentially huge issue. It's an incredibly intransigent problem and victims are finding that they have to sue health care providers to have their records corrected."
Medical identity theft occurs when a medical identity thief uses your Social Security number or health insurance information, either to get free medical treatment or to collect insurance money for services that were never performed.
It can cause erroneous and fictitious information to become part of its victims' medical records. For example, an incorrectly updated blood type or allergy record could result in serious consequences, and perhaps even a patient's death.
There's financial damage as well. Hospital collection agencies may turn to victims for payments not collected through insurance.
There are two types of perpetrators who commit this crime.
First is the person who needs medical treatment. This person walks into an emergency room, claiming the identity of a neighbor or friend, in order to get emergency treatment they can't afford. Or they use another person's Social Security number, stolen driver's license or health insurance card to get a surgery for which they have no medical coverage.
But more often, medical identity theft is committed by a crime ring that includes health care insiders. The black market will pay a health care employee as much as $50 for a stolen medical record, compared to a dollar or two for a Social Security number, according to the World Privacy Forum.
The perpetrators use the records to file fraudulent claims with Medicare or health insurance companies. In 2003 a five-person crime ring in Milpitas, California, pleaded guilty to stealing more than $900,000 through fraudulent Medicare claims, MSNBC reported.
To cover their tracks, the perpetrators often redirect hospital bills or health insurance statements to a new address. Because they never see the redirected insurance statements, victims who are not seeking current medical treatment may not detect the fraud for years.
Some people do find out about medical identity theft when a debt collector sends a letter or calls. However, others only find out after an insurance investigator alerts them to the problem, or after they notice errors in their medical file, or after they get a strange bill for medical services they did not receive.
The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) -- created in 1996 to protect patient privacy -- has inadvertently made it more difficult for victims of medical identity theft to correct their medical records.
HIPAA can keep victims from seeing medical information created by the perpetrator. It also doesn't require doctors to remove incorrect information from records -- and many health care providers choose not to for liability reasons.
In response to these legal snafus, the World Privacy Forum is now calling for more access and control by individuals over their own medical records.
The World Privacy Forum says to carefully review insurance statements for anything that seems wrong, even if you don't owe any money. Look for:
- Charges for services that you did not receive.
- - Charges for office visits you did not make.
- Charges for medical equipment you did not use.
Action: Ask to get a copy of your medical records from each health care provider you use once a year. That way, if your medical records are tampered with in the future, you'll have a copy of the correct information.
In addition, request a listing of benefits paid for in your name from your health insurer each year. By proactively asking for this record, you will uncover problems even if a criminal has attempted to redirect bills to a new address.
Under HIPAA you have a right to see your records from every health insurer and provider you have used. If you see payments you do not recognize, ask questions.
If you think you may be the victim of medical identity theft, call your local police or the Medicaid/Medicare fraud hotline at 1-800-HHS-TIPS (1-800-447-8477); or the Federal Trade Commission Identity Theft Toll-Free Hotline at 1-877-IDTHEFT (438-4338).
You can find more tips for victims at Medical Identity Theft: What to Do if You are a Victim (or are concerned about it).
Finally, we wondered if LifeLock's guarantee covered medical identity theft as well as other forms of identity theft.
So, we asked -- we wanted to be certain to give you the correct information. (After all, we knew once we sent out this article, we'd get lots of Lifelock subscribers asking us this question.)
Answer: LifeLock's "guarantee DOES cover medical ID theft."
That's it for today -- see you next week.