Stolen credit card and bank account numbers cost Americans an average of $2,183 in 2012, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
But stolen health insurance policy numbers could cost you even more. It’s called medical identity theft, and most victims only learn they’ve been robbed when a bill collector calls, asking why they haven’t paid health bills that aren’t theirs. Medical ID theft cost victims an average of $22,346 last year – 10 times that of regular ole’ ID theft – according to a new survey from research firm the Ponemon Institute.
And it’s hurting more than the victims.
“Medical identity theft is tainting the healthcare ecosystem, much like poisoning the town’s water supply – everyone will be affected,” says Larry Ponemon, the company’s chairman and founder. “The survey finds that consumers are completely unaware of the seriousness and dangers of medical identity theft.”
Health-related identity theft has been on the rise since 2011. It has been getting easier to commit ever since the federal government began pushing for the digitization of medical records. That policy is supposed to make it easier for consumers to move to new doctors and receive emergency treatment. Problem is, it also means it’s easier for criminals to get a hold of those records.
So how do you avoid this latest form ID theft? We condensed tips from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Federal Trade Commission, among other respected sources. Here they are in one handy checklist…
1. Don’t discuss your health over the phone
If anyone calls and asks for your Medicare number as part of a health survey, hang up. It’s a scam. If they offer you medical equipment for your participation (for instance, diabetes test strips or even a motorized wheelchair) and tell you your insurance will completely cover the cost, block them. They’re lying.
As the AARP reminds its members about a similar scam, this one involving life alerts: If Medicare, Medicaid, and insurance companies are going to pay for equipment, they need a doctor’s recommendation first.
And if you knew that already, don’t fall for another common scam: Thieves posing as doctors and calling or emailing you with personal questions in exchange for getting you that free equipment. Don’t share details about your health records with someone you don’t know. And really, what kind of doctor calls total strangers to drum up business?
2. Ask to see your medical records, keep them safe, and shred outdated forms
If your credit card statement shows a bill from a hospital you’ve never visited, you should obviously call and ask them to email any records of treatment “you” received.
But here’s the best and easiest way to find out if your records have been misused: Ask the billing department at the doctor’s office or hospital for copies of a document called an “Accounting of Disclosures.” This government-required form is free to order once a year. It helps you learn:
- What medical information your healthcare provider sent
- When they sent the information
- Who received it
- Why they sent it in the first place
Once you receive the records, look for anything that doesn’t make sense. If you find errors, the Federal Trade Commission offers a list of ways to correct mistakes and minimize the damage, ranging from mailing a corrected copy to your healthcare provider to placing a fraud alert on your credit file.
It’s also important to ask your healthcare provider for a form known as the “Explanation of Benefits” or “Medicare Summary Notice,” to see if you received all the treatments and products listed on it.
If all your forms are accurate, shred any outdated copies of these four items: insurance forms, prescription and physician statements, and prescription bottle labels.
3. Helping others might hurt you
If your deadbeat brother is barely affording his rent and just caught the flu, you could both end up sicker if you share your insurance number with him.
In Larry Ponemon’s study, 30 percent of medical identity theft victims say it happened because they volunteered their medical information to family, friends, or colleagues in need of health care. So if you’re giving your information to someone you trust and they don’t pay the bill, or if they add incorrect information like weight or height to your medical records, you could end up receiving improper or even fatal treatment.
You could also end up in court, considering this is a form of insurance fraud – which could get you sued by your insurance company or convicted of a crime.