Your personal health insurance information, including your Social Security number, address, and email address, is valuable and vulnerable. When it gets into the wrong hands it can be used to steal expensive medical services—even surgeries—and prescription drugs or to procure medical devices or equipment such as wheelchairs.
Your medical identity is a commodity that can be hijacked and used to falsify insurance claims or to fraudulently acquire government benefits such as Medicare or Medicaid. Your personal medical information may also be sold on the black market, where it can be used to create entirely new medical identities based on your data.
And more often than you might imagine, people outright share their own medical coverage with an uninsured friend or family member in need of care, which is against the law.
Because current consumer protections aren’t specifically designed for medical identity theft, experts warn, people need to understand that they may have to take on extensive work to clear up fraudulent bills. Some frustrated victims of medical identity theft simply give up and pay the bills themselves.
But there’s another, far more dangerous problem with medical identity theft: The thief’s own medical treatment, history, and diagnoses can get mixed up with your own electronic health records—potentially tainting and complicating your care for years to come. And that isn’t a hypothetical problem.
“About 20 percent of victims have stated that they received the wrong diagnosis or treatment, or that their care was delayed because there was confusion about what was true in their records due to the identity theft,” says Ann Patterson, a senior vice president of the Medical Identity Fraud Alliance (MIFA), a group of several dozen healthcare organizations and businesses working to reduce the crime and its negative effects.
Spotting Medical Identity Theft and How to Prevent It
Experts say detecting the fraud in the first place can be the most difficult part. “Medical identify theft and fraud is much harder to spot than financial fraud,” says Michelle De Mooy, acting director of the Privacy & Data Project at the nonprofit Center for Democracy & Technology. “The bank calls you if they see charges in the system that raise an alarm. This kind of fraud is much easier to hide for a longer time.”
That’s why you need to be especially smart and careful about how and when you share your personal, medical, and insurance information.
Here are a few basic ways you can safeguard your medical privacy and identity:
- Read those explanation of benefits letters as if they were bank statements
- Carefully check all of the correspondence you receive from health insurers and healthcare providers for accuracy and for bills of service that you don’t recognize
Review your credit reports for unfamiliar debts. Be stingy with your personal health information, Social Security card, and insurance cards. If someone asks for them, inquire whether it is really necessary.