Most people do not realize they are victims of medical identity theft until the deed has already been done. Often it takes years for a victim to notice anything, until they happen to check their medical records and find discrepancies or look at their credit report and discover their financial history has been damaged.
Brandon Sharp, a 42-year-old oil and gas company manager from Houston, had thankfully never needed to use the emergency room. He was healthy, happy and about to get married and purchase his first home when he discovered a number of collection notices in his name.
The notices told him he owed thousands of dollars in emergency-service medical bills in multiple states.
“There was even a $19,000 bill for a Life Flight air ambulance service in some remote location I’d never heard of,” Sharp told the New York Times. “I had emergency room bills from places like Bowling Green, Kansas, where I’ve never even visited. I’m still cleaning up the mess.”
There are several ways criminals perpetrate medical identity theft, a crime that leaves victims to foot hefty bills or results in serious healthcare record errors:
- Data breaches: The recent Anthem breach showed us how easily thieves can get their hands on a huge number of records containing sensitive information. In Anthem’s case, the data leak put 80 million Americans at risk. Names, birth dates, Social Security numbers (SSN), home and employment addresses and income data were compromised. The Anthem breach was an outside threat, but insider threats exist too. According to the Health Care Trust Alliance insiders were the source of 23 percent of data breaches in 2012. This means that employees within the healthcare sector are stealing sensitive information and medical records for their own purposes.
- Sharing medical information with friends/family: Many individuals understand the danger of sharing medical identity information with strangers, but few realize that sharing sensitive data with friends and family results in misuse too. The Fifth Annual Study on Medical Identity Theft details that 24 percent of medical identity theft occurred because a friend or family member used medical credentials without consent, while 23 percent occurred because the victim handed over information to friends or family of their own accord.
- Cyber attacks: Hospitals, medical professionals and patients are all turning to the internet for things like data storage and appointment scheduling. While this is incredibly convenient, it does increase the risk of identity theft, especially because the healthcare industry is still struggling to devote resources to IT security. Ann Patterson, Medical Identity Fraud Alliance senior vice president, said, “Unlike financial reports that are housed at the three credit bureaus …↑ there is no central repository where your medical record is housed.” This means that hospitals, insurers and other healthcare organizations must keep track of massive amounts of data, alongside securing it against threats. The large amounts of data, combined with lacking security systems, puts the healthcare sector at risk.
When there are so many sources of risk, it can seem difficult to protect yourself against identity theft. The good news is that staying vigilant and being aware is a big part of identity theft protection. Make sure to ask how your hospital and insurer keep your information safe. Also, sign up for a credit monitoring service, which can alert you if certain activity occurs on your credit files that may suggest fraud.