Identity thieves have never been in better health both physically and financially thanks to patient medical records stored on computer. Contrary to what some people may think, it’s not just hackers sitting at home with a laptop who are breaking into patient medical files. Who is guilty of medical identity theft? What patient groups are most vulnerable to medical identity theft? How can caregivers help prevent medical identity theft?
Who is Guilty of Medical Identity Theft?
Anyone who’s ever been to a doctor, health care facility or clinic knows the patient has to complete at least a moderate amount of paperwork. Private information is collected for insurance and billing purposes and is placed in an online patient file. Personal information usually includes, but is not limited to, a social security number, residence information, insurance carrier, credit card numbers used for co-payments and employment details.
From the moment the patient hands over his personal information, he is at risk for medical identity theft. Unfortunately, the computer that stores the medical information may not have the best security safeguards in place. Sometimes, the information is stolen before it’s put on the computer.
In a news article published by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) in the AARP Bulletin (May 2010), contributing writer Sid Kirchheimer enlightens readers by stating, “With a push by the Obama administration and others to computerize patient health records, cyber criminals see an opportunity ripe for the taking. Other thieves work as ‘moles’ in physician and insurance offices to steal patient records.”
What Groups are Most Vulnerable to Medical Identity Theft?
Anyone can become a victim of medical identity theft. Persons profoundly disabled (such as mentally impaired) and elderly persons too frail to manage their own health care affairs are especially vulnerable. The persons in these groups have to rely on family members and/or paid caregivers to fill out medical forms and take care of medical business affairs.
When a medical billing statement arrives in the mail, it’s not always easy for a caregiver or even a family member to determine if the printed statement of services rendered is correct. Paid caregivers often work in shifts and communication between workers may not be as good as it should be. As a result, the patient may end up paying for services not rendered – or may pay for services “stolen” by a thief in need of medical care.
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What’s more, medical identity theft can also lead to altered medical records. This is a dangerous situation for the theft victim. Why? If the thief receives medical care by using information stolen from a victim’s file, the act may comprise the victim’s own treatment and his ability to get future services. The insurance company won’t cover the losses. A medical theft victim may have to pay to keep his health insurance or may end up paying higher premiums to restore the coverage.
How can a Caregiver Help Protect a Patient Against Medical ID Theft?
There are steps a caregiver (parent, family member, etc.) can take to protect a vulnerable patient against medical identity theft. Most of the suggestions are easy to follow. Besides paying attention to medical bills and statements of service, what else can a caregiver do to prevent patient ID theft?
- Suggest to health care providers that patients should have to show a photo ID at appointments.
- Caregivers are urged to keep a journal of all medical treatments for the patient to match against incoming medical statements and bills for services. Include names, dates, service codes, etc.
- Keep all statements, bill records and correspondence letters in a file for easy access.
- Communicate with the insurance company and question anything that appears suspicious.
- Check with the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Trans Union and Experian) for medical or other activity not authorized by or for the patient.
- The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) website has posted an informative page titled, “Facts for Consumers” (2010). Caregivers and anyone else can find detailed information on how to detect medical identity theft.
- Know how to get help for medical identity theft. Start with guidance from the FTC’s Identity Theft Site.
Thieves gather private information from medical records – information that can be used to clean out bank accounts, get a passport, and access health care services. In the most extreme situation, a patient’s stolen identity might even be used by terrorists, according to Kirchheimer in the article mentioned in the first section. It’s imperative that identity theft be reported immediately.
Cyber criminals are skilled at gaining personal information from computerized patient health records. It is up to the consumer and caregivers to know how to take action. A few easy precautions can help reduce the risk of medical identity theft.