By Senior Officer Larry Jacobs
Crime Prevention Division, SSPD

Medical ID theft is a growing problem. As in traditional ID theft, these ID thieves obtain our personal information from sources such as computers, trash cans (dumpster divers), mailboxes and dishonest people working in the medical field. Armed with this information, ID thieves can get medical treatment, prescriptions and even surgical procedures, which can affect your finances and health. Every time this information is used, a record is left behind that can affect your medical history and cause problems.

The following is an introduction to medical ID theft. More information can be found at the Federal Trade Commission’s website, www.ftc.gov.

The ill-effects of medical ID theft

How would you know if your personal, health or health insurance information had been compromised? According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the nation’s consumer protection agency, you may be a victim of medical identity theft if:

  • you get a bill for medical services you didn’t receive;
  • a debt collector contacts you about medical debt you don’t owe;
  • you order a copy of your credit report and see medical collection notices you don’t recognize;
  • you try to make a legitimate insurance claim and your health plan says you’ve reached your limit on benefits; or
  • you are denied insurance because your medical records show a condition you don’t have.

Medical identity theft may change your medical and health insurance records. Every time a thief uses your identity to get care, a record is created with the imposter’s medical information that could be mistaken for your medical information – say, a different blood type, an inaccurate history of drug or alcohol abuse, test results that aren’t yours, or a diagnosis of an illness, allergy or condition you don’t have. Any of these could lead to improper treatment, which in turn could lead to injury, illness or worse.

An ounce of prevention

While there’s no foolproof way to avoid medical identity theft, the FTC says you can take a few steps to minimize your risk.

Verify a source before sharing information. Don’t give out personal or medical information on the phone or through the mail unless you’ve initiated the contact and you’re sure you know who you’re dealing with. Be wary of offers of “free” health services or products from providers who require you to give them your health-plan ID number. Medical identity thieves may pose as employees of insurance companies, doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies and even government agencies to get people to reveal their personal information. Then they use it to commit fraud, like submitting false claims for Medicare reimbursement.

Safeguard your medical and health insurance information. If you keep copies of your medical or health insurance records, make sure they’re secure, whether they’re on paper in a desk drawer or in a file online. Be on guard when you use the Internet, especially to access accounts or records related to your medical care or insurance. If you are asked to share sensitive personal information like your Social Security number, insurance account information or any details of your health or medical conditions on the Internet, ask why it’s needed, how it will be kept safe, and whether it will be shared. Look for website privacy policies and read them: They should specify how site operators maintain the accuracy of the personal information they collect, as well as how they secure it, who has access to it, how they will use the information you provide, and whether they will share it with third parties. If you decide to share your information online, look for indicators that the site is secure, like a lock icon on the browser’s status bar or a URL that begins “https:” (the “s” is for secure). Remember that email is not secure.

Treat your trash carefully. To thwart a medical identity thief who may pick through your trash or recycling bins to capture your personal and medical information, shred your health insurance forms and prescription and physician statements. It’s also a good idea to destroy the labels on your prescription bottles and packages before you throw them out.

Senior Officer Larry Jacobs works in the crime prevention division of the Sandy Springs Police Department. He can be reached at larry.jacobs@sandyspringsga.org.