Protecting yourself from medical identity theft

You might think it’s better for a stranger to get into your medical records than your bank account. But you’d be wrong. While traditional identity theft can leave you in a tight spot, the effects of medical identity theft are often much worse. With medical identity theft, more than just your finances are at stake. Your health itself can be on the line.

How your medical identity is used
Why would someone steal your medical identity? There are a number of reasons. In some cases, a person with no insurance uses your information to get medical treatment illegally. The bill goes to your insurer, who picks up the tab on your behalf.

There are other methods, too. If you have Medicare or Medicaid, someone might falsely bill the government for care or equipment you never received. There have even been cases of identity thieves buying prescription drugs under someone else’s name.

What are the consequences?
You may not feel the financial effects right away, but the damage these imposters do can be significant. Among other things, they can ruin your credit rating. You could be stuck with a large hospital bill you can’t pay. And while the problem can be resolved after a while, the time and effort it takes can be quite draining.

Then there’s the fallout to your health insurance. If an imposter charges expensive services to your insurer, your benefits could get maxed out without your knowing it. Then, you wouldn’t be able to use your coverage until you had the issue resolved.

But those problems pale compared to the potential health threats involved. The fraudulent use of your identity could cause false information to appear in your medical records. In a medical emergency, this could lead to serious problems. You could be given the wrong medicines, treated for an illness you don’t have or given a transfusion of the wrong blood type.

Recognizing medical identity theft
Medical theft doesn’t work the same way traditional identity theft does. Your bank account or credit card isn’t depleted overnight. In fact, it could take several months for you to realize something is wrong. But there may be a few tip offs. You should become suspicious if you:

Get a bill for care you didn’t receive Have collectors calling about bills you don’t owe Are turned down for insurance over pre-existing conditions you don’t have Are denied coverage because your benefits are mysteriously maxed out Find inaccurate medical collection notices on your credit report

What can be done about it?
Just because you’ve never had your identity stolen doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. But you may be able to prevent it on the front end.

Periodically review medical records and credit reports for accuracy. Keep all medical and health documents securely locked away. Shred any personal information before putting it into the trash. Carefully read any explanation of benefits (EOB) letters you get from your insurer. Contact your insurance company right away if you spot any errors or inaccuracies.

Finally, you should never give out any sensitive information over the telephone or online. This includes your:

Birth date Social security number Medicare or Medicaid card number Checking account or credit card numbers

And if you do discover your identity’s been stolen? Then you’ll need to start the repair work right away.

File a report with the Federal Trade Commission by calling 877-ID-THEFT (TTY: 866-653-4261). Report the theft to your local police department. Contact the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services fraud line at 800-477-8477. Work with your doctor or hospital to remove errors from your medical records. Send copies of your police report to your insurer. Contact credit reporting companies about repairing your credit history.

Keep in mind that it could take several months to resolve the matter. But be patient and follow through. That way, your care and benefits will be there when you need them.