Medical identity theft is on the rise — and if you become a victim it could affect you and your medical care for years to come. But what is it, exactly?
Recently there has been quite a bit of comment in the media and in the blogosphere about an article on WebMD focused on medical identity theft.
The article tells the story of Joe Ryan, a Colorado man, who received a hospital bill for $44,000 for an operation he never had. Eventually, he learned that "an ex-con had checked into a hospital using Ryan's Social Security number. The crook had gotten his operation without a hitch — sticking the real Ryan with the bill."
In our recent book, Bankrupt at Birth, my colleague and co-author Steve Schwartz and I took a look at the growing problem of medical identity theft. We talked about the lady in Salt Lake City who received a frantic call from a local hospital claiming the newborn baby she had just taken home had tested positive for illegal drugs and should be returned to the hospital immediately. Since she had not given birth recently, she assumed the call was simply a mistake and ignored it. But shortly after, the police showed up at her door and investigators from the state's Department of Child and Family Services showed up threatening to remove her four children and calling her an unfit mother.
It turned out, of course, that she had been the victim of medical identity theft. A pregnant young alleged drug abuser had stolen her driver's license, walked into a hospital, had the baby and left the hospital with the baby leaving the victim to clean up the mess.
Another woman we highlighted walked into a local hospital in Florida to protest the bill she had received. It's important to note she walked in without a limp. The bill was for the amputation of a foot. She too was a victim of identity theft.
"Medical identity theft causes terrible harm, both financial and physical," Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, told WebMD. She estimates that as many as 500,000 Americans may be victims, and many don't even know it.
Some medical identity theft cases involve individuals scamming hospitals and clinics to get care as the example above. But most involve organized crime rings using people's identity and medical information to file bogus claims often with Medicare. Dixon says that criminals even set up fake clinics, or buy real ones, as a cover. Victims may not know it's happened until they are denied coverage for a pre-existing medical condition that they don't have.
That highlights another real problem involving medical identity theft in this day of electronic medical records. The scammer's medical record becomes mixed with the victim's medical history and it can take almost heroic efforts to clean up the record.
Ryan, the Colorado man who talked with WebMD, said after two years "I still can't get my medical records straightened out."
How can you avoid this happening to you? Really there is not much you can do other than try to make sure your doctor's office keeps your records locked up in a secure location. But if you get bills from a medical provider for services you did not receive — follow up immediately. If you get statements from your health insurer, or Medicare, review them closely and immediately contest any charges that appear inaccurate or downright bogus.