Medical identity theft can be one of the hardest to find you have been a victim of, especially for those that rarely have to go to the doctor. It can also be one of the hardest crimes to correct, a situation that could be made even worse by national health care that requires electronic medical records and certain HIPPA rules.
Imagine that you are getting ready to get married and buy your very first home. It is a happy time but a busy time too. Before you apply for a mortgage you request a copy of your credit report. Now imagine that your credit report shows that you owe thousands of dollars in emergency services related medical bills including a $19,000 bill for a Life Flight air ambulance. Imagine the surprise, confusion and fear you’d feel if you’d never really had any health problems and had never even been admitted to an emergency room.
This is what really happened to Texas resident, Brandon Sharp. The 37 year-old oil and gas company manager wasn’t suffering from memory loss. He was in fact a victim of medical identity theft, a crime that affects an estimated 250,000 Americans every year.
Pam Dixon, executive director of the nonprofit World Privacy Forum and author of medical identity theft reports, says that number is most likely low as there has been an increase in the use of electronic medical records systems that don’t yet have “extensive safeguards.” Another reason Dixon believes the estimates are low is because of the number of people who don’t yet know that they are victims and won’t learn until, like Brandon Sharp, they get a copy of their credit report.
According to Sharp, “I had emergency room bills from places like Bowling Green, Kan., where I’ve never even visited. I’m still cleaning up the mess.”
How did this happen?
In this case someone obtained Mr. Sharp’s name and social security number and used them to receive medical treatment. Many hospitals are obliged to provide medical treatment whether or not a person has medical insurance. In this case, the criminals didn’t have (or try to use) Sharp’s insurance information so the charges went straight to Sharp. If criminals use a phony address then victims like Sharp won’t even get a bill or know that charges are being applied to their credit report. The perpetrator or perpetrators of this particular medical identity theft crime have yet to be identified.
Many medical identity theft crimes involve stealing and using personal medical insurance, which is why keeping your card number, and insurance information protected is so important. If someone has an insurance member identification number, they can impersonate you and obtain routine physicals, major surgeries, medications and medical supplies. One medical identity theft even helped herself to breast enhancements. (Link???)
In addition to individual medical identity thefts, unfortunately there are also cases of insider medical identity theft when medical identities are stolen by insiders at medical offices or billing companies. Thieves may use the information personally or sell it on the black market.
In addition to checking your credit report annually, be sure to open and read ALL of those statements from your insurance company to be someone else isn’t using your insurance for an Life Air helicopter ride or even a cosmetic surgery.
Medical identity can be dangerous. In addition to ruining your credit, medical identity theft changes your medical records and puts you at risk when you seek treatment for yourself. Imagine being treated in the emergency room and doctors have bogus blood type, allergy, medical history or prescription information.
What about HIPPA? Does it protect you from or make medical identity theft worse?
Well, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act entitles you to a copy of your medical records but that doesn’t mean that you won’t have to pay a hefty fee to get them. Unfortunately, HIPPA laws can actually work against victims’ of identity theft because they make it harder to disentangle the misinformation and even the thief’s medical information is protected.