MEDICAL IDENTITY THEFT – MORE THAN JUST A FINANCIAL DANGER

A new trend in identity theft is expected to be on the rise in 2010. This time the fraud not only has the ability to hurt your credit but can also be a danger to your actual health. Medical identity theft starts with the appropriation of your medical records and can lead to high bills, maxed out limits and even misdiagnosis when being treated. It’s a genuine danger and the threat seems to be growing.

BusinessWeek told the story of Lind Weaver, a 57 year old horse farm owner from Palm Coast, Florida. Weaver was surprised to open her mailbox one afternoon and discover she was being billed for the amputation of right foot by a local hospital.

After several weeks of phone calls and heated discussions with the hospital’s billing representatives, there was no resolution in sight. Weaver eventually took the initiative and marched down to the chief administrator’s office. She threw her right foot up on his desk and informed him she had never suffered anything worse than an ingrown toenail.

In time, she was able to convince the hospital to drop the charges. During the process Weaver realized it wasn’t just a billing error, her identity had been stolen and used to have the pricey procedure done. Along with her name, Lind Weaver’s address, social security number, and medical ID number were used in the fraud.

Cleaning up the outstanding bills and protecting her credit standing weren’t the end of Lind Weaver’s troubles. While hospitalized a year later for a hysterectomy, Weaver’s nurse noted she was a diabetic while thumbing through her chart. The truth is, she is not a diabetic. Her medical records were now mixed up with the scammer’s medical history from their fraudulent visit.

The damage this type of fraud can do goes far beyond the pocket book. Cleaning up the records has proven even more difficult than sorting out the financial implications of the initial amputation bill. Lind Weaver lives in fear of being rushed to the hospital and falling victim to an error due to the mixed records, a transfusion of the wrong blood type or administration of a drug to which she is allergic. The strange bill in the mailbox which at first glance seems like an annoying case of financial fraud in reality has the potential to do actual, physical harm.

The last study of the scam on a federal level was released in 2007 by the World Privacy Forum. Since 1992 there had been almost 500,000 cases of reported medical identity theft, but that number had been growing exponentially with almost have of the reports coming in the final year. There are two reasons these numbers are expected to have risen and feared to keep growing: unreported cases and new technologies.

Unless the victim is paying close attention, this type of fraud can go unnoticed for a long time. An example would be 37 year old Brandon Sharp out of Houston, Texas. Last year his story was profiled in the New York Times. Having never suffered any serious medical problems or even entered an emergency room for treatment, Sharp was surprised to learn he owed thousands of dollars in medical bills.

The only reason he found out was because he had requested his credit report in preparation for applying for a home mortgage. Several emergency room visits in locations around the country, even a $19,000 charge for a LifeFlight air ambulance service, all appeared in his credit report as collection notices. Six years after the discovery and he is still in the process of getting both his credit and medical records sorted out.

Stories like these lead experts to believe there are growing numbers of unreported cases. The bills were going to a false address, and Brandon Sharp would never have discovered the problem had he not made a request to view his credit report.

With the past two presidential administrations pushing for complete digitization of medical records, many are worried this is opening up a new avenue for the theft of personal medical records. Instead of just being located in the doctor’s office, files are being shared online and presenting new opportunities for hackers to gain access.

Many medical identity thefts are inside jobs, disgruntled employees or those just looking to make an easy buck selling access to the files in a doctor’s office. The ability to steal and sell mass quantities of private medical information has been made much easier and more highly profitable in the computer age.

In Weston, Florida a front desk clerk managed to download the medical files of over 1,000 Medicare patients in the clinic where he worked. He gave the information to his cousin who then made over 2.8 million dollars in false Medicare claims.

American Medical News recently reported a new e-mail scam targeting doctors in an attempt to gain access to their patients’ medical records. Normally fed inside information by an employee of the doctor, the scammers send phony emails posing as an information technology worker with whom the doctor normally works. They claim to need a password or permission to download highly sensitive software in order to complete a routine piece of business. If successful in this deceit, the hacker has full access to the medical records in the office and the doctor is none the wiser.

Medical identification fraud is difficult for the average consumer to prevent, as access to this information is beyond their control. There are several ways to stay alert and be aware if you have fallen victim as recently provided by the Federal Government.

– Make sure only legitimate medical care providers get your social security number, insurance ID number or other personal information. Be alert to snooping eyes when checking out.

– Read the explanations of benefits carefully whenever you receive it in the mail from your insurer. Make sure the doctors listed and treatments or tests noted are genuine. If there is anything listed you don’t recognize, call your insurer immediately.

– Request a yearly summary of all benefits paid by your insurer. Many companies provide this online.

– Monitor the credit bureaus and check the reports for any medical listings you don’t remember. If there are unrecognized, unpaid bills in your name request a fraud alert and credit reporting freeze immediately.

– If someone has stolen your medical identity contact the police and file a report. Take this to your doctor and any vendors who might falsely believe you owe them money. Have all clinics, laboratories, pharmacies and doctor’s offices you’ve visited, or been wrongly implicated of visiting, print out detailed records of your visits. Use these to help fight the fraud and clean up your medical records so you don’t get misdiagnosed later.

Medical identity theft is a dangerous business. Not only are you suddenly hit with credit issues and unpaid bills, but if the scammer has been busy you might find your insurance has been maxed out for life and end up being denied medical treatment, or receive the wrong care in an emergency because your records have been mixed in with those of the fraudster who used your name and information. Be aware of this frightening new trend, its more than your bank account that is at risk.

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