theft to many people is not a big deal because it has
become synonymous with the minor hassle of dealing with
a stolen credit card number. You get another card, and
youíre not out any money. And it happens so often, weíve
become numb to data-breach headlines.
a far more insidious form of ID theft goes beyond
dollars and cents and can literally mean life or death.
identity theft is when a thief steals your identity to
receive medical services, buy medical products or rip
off health insurers. It affects private insurers,
Medicare and Medicaid.
find it far more lucrative than ripping off credit card
numbers, experts say. Thatís why, despite not even
being acknowledged as an issue a decade ago, the crime
numbers are growing rapidly. The Medical Identity Fraud
Alliance says medical ID theft rose 22 percent in 2014,
to 2 million victims. About two-thirds of victims paid
more than $13,000 in out-of-pocket costs to resolve the
crime, according to the fifth annual Study on Medical
Identity Theft by the Ponemon Institute.
Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum,
which maintains perhaps the most extensive resources on
the topic, puts the number of annual victims at 5
million to 10 million, with regional hot spots in
retirement areas such as Florida and Arizona and major
cities such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.
is done by major, sophisticated criminal rings,"
Dixon said. "This is not mom-and-pop stuff."
data breaches at large health insurers Anthem and
Premera Blue Cross are recent examples.
health insurers, unlike retailers, crooks can steal
enough information to damage your financial life,
including opening new credit accounts in your name ó
far more problematic than credit card number ripoffs.
potentially more problematic, they can mess up your
medical records. If someone receives medical care in
your name, your medical history can have incorrect
information about allergies, drug interactions, diseases
and blood type.
medical file starts reflecting this fake reality and
gets totally polluted," Dixon said. "This is
why when people are victims of medical forms of identity
theft, they can literally have life-threatening
thieves are getting medical services or doing fictitious
medical billing in your name, there are no laws to
protect you as with financial identity theft, Dixon
said. Existing medical privacy laws restrict your
ability to clean up the mess, giving you no ability to
correct or delete erroneous information from medical
histories, she said.
have the right to look at our records, but we do not
have the right to change our records," she said.
"Itís a serious crime, and there are no absolute
cures at this point."
said it can take years to recover.
the cases of health insurer data breaches, itís not
your fault and thereís little you can do to avoid it.
"You cannot prevent medical forms of identity
theft, unless you never see a doctor," Dixon said.
here are some steps to take.
insurance statements. Monitor "explanation of
benefits" statements from your health insurer,
looking for services you did not receive, office visits
you never made or medical equipment you didnít buy. If
you find unfamiliar items, it might indicate youíre a
victim of medical ID theft, and you should contact your
insurer. Donít assume everything is OK just because
you donít owe the insurer any money.
80 percent of people donít read their explanation of
benefits mailing, mostly because theyíre so difficult
to comprehend, said Bob Gregg, chief executive of ID
Experts, which sells medical identity theft services to
health insurers and self-insured employers.
part of the problem, but reading them is one way to
protect yourself," Gregg said.
sometimes fraudsters change your billing address and you
wonít see the statements. So annually, request a copy
of that yearís health benefits paid in your name to
check for fraudulent charges, the World Privacy Forum
a copy of your electronic medical file. "It is not
possible for me to state how important this is,"
Dixon said. Itís difficult to reconstruct a personís
original medical file after itís been contaminated
with information from a criminal.
for a copy of your medical files, at least the
highlights, from the doctor you see most and those of
your children too, Dixon said. It should include a list
of your current medications. If your health insurer
provides online access to those records, take
screenshots or make printouts, she said. Some health
providers might charge for the copies, and you might
want to skip some pricey ones, such as copies of X-rays.
want a current snapshot of your body state," she
said. "People who have that baseline file come out
so much better than people who donít."
help get those files, the World Privacy Forum has sample
letters and detailed advice on what to do if health
providers refuse to give you a copy.
who has gotten a medical data-breach letter needs to get
a copy of their health care files immediately,"
monitoring. Breaches of health insurers, retailers,
banks and other organizations usually lead to companies
offering free credit monitoring. That wonít help with
pollution of your medical records but it might help with
the financial side of medical ID theft if part of the
breach included Social Security numbers, which allows
thieves to open new credit accounts in your name.
However, credit monitoring is useless if only your
credit or debit card number was stolen, as is the case
in many breaches of retailers. If monitoring is free,
feel free to sign up for it. You can also access your
credit reports once a year at each of the three main
credit bureaus at annualcreditreport.com. If you find a
fraudulent unpaid health care debt, use the dispute
procedures available at the credit bureaus.
one recent consumer-friendly action to keep medical
debts from unfairly harming the creditworthiness of
consumers is likely to have a bad side effect for
victims of medical ID theft. In March, the three largest
credit-reporting agencies, Equifax, Experian and
TransUnion, said bad medical debts wonít be reported
until after a 180-day waiting period to allow time for
insurance payments to be applied. That adds delay for
victims of medical identity theft who could learn of the
fraud through credit reports, Dixon said. So, regular
monitoring wonít help to catch medical ID theft
your insurance card. It wonít help people who are
victims of data breaches, but in day-to-day activities,
protect your health insurance card as you would your
Social Security card. Itís a good idea to keep your
health insurance information with you in case of injury
or health crisis. But instead of carrying the card,
Dixon recommends photocopying the insurance card and
blacking out the last four digits. If thereís an
emergency, a hospital or care center can call the
insurer and get the information they need to provide
treatment, she said. When going to a scheduled doctor
visit, just take the card with you, she said.