Medical identity theft is hard to untangle

The Federal Trade Commission says medical identity theft The Federal Trade Commission says medical identity theft occurs when someone uses your Medicare or health-insurance account numbers to get prescription drugs, file a claim or get medical treatment. Photo Credit: iStock

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Those 65 or older have probably figured out that their Medicare number is the same as their Social Security number. While this brings some added convenience, it also can expose them to added dangers. Among them is medical identity theft.

The Federal Trade Commission says medical identity theft occurs when someone uses your Medicare or health-insurance account numbers to get prescription drugs, file a claim or get medical treatment.

"Seniors are more vulnerable to medical ID theft for a variety of reasons," says Lisa Schifferle, an attorney with the commission's division of privacy and identity protection. "Their information is often available in many different settings."

Seniors often see multiple doctors, and at each visit, they must present their Medicare card -- which, of course, has their Social Security number on it. "We always advise people not to carry their Social Security card with them, but sometimes a senior will need to carry their Medicare card with them," Schifferle says. "That puts them at a greater risk for medical ID theft and a range of ID thefts."

So how do thieves get your information? Schifferle says it is sometimes a relative or caregiver preying on a senior. There are also a growing number of scammers lurking, from dishonest health care workers to organized crime groups targeting nursing homes for patients' data.

Medical ID theft is relatively rare -- it amounts to 1 percent of all identity-theft complaints the FTC receives, although it may be underreported because some seniors are embarrassed to admit they've become victims. The consequences can be more severe than financial identity theft. If a thief uses your identity to get treatment or drugs, the medical information is mixed with yours. "It's a medical harm as well as a financial harm," Schifferle says.

Unlike financial ID theft, in which credit-reporting companies serve as a centralized location where you can monitor suspicious activity on your credit cards or bank accounts, your medical records are scattered among multiple providers. "Medical ID theft is one of the most difficult types of identity thefts to remedy and unravel," Schifferle says.

If you suspect medical identity theft, order your records from each provider you go to. If someone else has used your account information to get treatment, make sure those providers correct the medical records.

For more information on how to spot medical identity theft and what to do if it happens to you, go to bit.ly/FTC-medical-theft.

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