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Protect Your Financial Health: Avoid Medical Identity Theft

You open a bill from your medical provider and discover a $300-plus charge for treatment for an eye infection. But you’ve never had an eye infection! Is it an innocent mistake by the doctor’s office—or is it medical identity theft?

What is medical identity theft?
Medical identity theft occurs when a dishonest person gets ahold of your health plan ID number or other medical information and uses it to get treatment. There were more than 1.4 million victims of medical identity theft in 2010 and 2011, and according to The Ponemon Institute’s study, “The National Study on Medical Identity Theft,” medical identity theft has more than doubled since 2008—and is on the rise.

You may not even know it happened until you start getting bills from doctors or collection agencies for services you did not receive. Or you might make an insurance claim and be told you have reached your benefit limit, or apply for insurance and be denied because your records show a condition you do not have. Medical identity theft can also damage your health. That is because when the thief uses your identity to get care, their information goes into your medical records. If, say, the wrong blood type goes on your record, this could lead to improper treatment, resulting in injury or illness.

How to reduce your risk
There is no surefire way to avoid such theft, but there are a number of ways to make it less likely, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC):
  • Beware of strangers seeking information. That official-sounding person on the phone (or that official-looking letter) isn’t necessarily legitimate. If you did not initiate the contact, and you do not know the person asking the question, do not give out personal or medical information. If a letter arrives from a medical provider offering free health care services or products, and requires your health plan ID number, check them out. Call your health plan and see if they are affiliated with the provider. Same goes for callers who say they represent an insurance company and need to verify a charge.
  • Keep medical and health insurance information under lock and key. Medical or health insurance records should be kept secure, whether in your file cabinet or in a file online. Beware of emails or websites asking for information like your Social Security number or your medical condition. Read website privacy policies to find out how information is secured, who can see it and how it will be used.
  • Online tips. If a site’s Web address begins “https,” the “s” is for “secure.” Another good sign: a lock icon on the browser’s status bar. And remember, email is not secure.
  • Slash your trash. Shred your health insurance forms, prescription and physician statements before you toss them. Tear up the labels on your prescription bottles, too.
Have questions? The FTC has a great website on the subject: consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0171-medical-identity-theft. This is the agency with which you would file a claim if your identity is stolen, so it’s the best place to get answers.

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