Identity theft doesn’t just mean that thieves can rack up bills for things like clothes, food and gas; a stolen identity or credit card can also result in huge medical bills for services that you never received. Resolving these bills is a headache that may take months or even years.
How does this kind of fraud happen?
As is the case with other goods purchased using a stolen card or identity, it’s fairly easy for thieves to charge unauthorized medical services to you once your personal information has been compromised. This can happen in a variety of ways, including stolen cards, personal information gleaned off the Internet or “digital pickpocketing” of information from cards using wireless technology. Once thieves have access to your social security number, address or credit card, they may be able to buy virtually anything, whether online or in person. Hospitals, online health supply providers and pharmacies are no exception. Reported charges include huge bills for medicines, copays, lab tests and even doctor and emergency room visits.
Medical identity theft is on the rise
Medical identity theft in particular is on the rise in the U.S. In fact, in its fifth annual study, the Medical Identity Theft Alliance (MIFA) reports that the number of people affected by medical identity theft increased by nearly 22% in 2014 alone. As many as 500,000 Americans find themselves in this predicament each year, and many fail to realize what has happened until too late. According to Forbes, it often takes much longer to determine that an identity has been stolen when unauthorized funds are used to purchase medical services: “medical identity victims typically learn of the fraudulent activity more than three months after a crime has been committed and 30% do not know when they became a victim.”
Medical fraud is also much more difficult to resolve than other forms of theft. For while other charges can be mitigated by working with credit card companies and banks, the medical field is very cautious regarding payments and patient information–even if you are trying to access bills under your own name incurred by somebody else. Because medical services and the resulting paperwork are safeguarded under Patient Privacy laws, it can be an enormous challenge to identify and contest unauthorized medical charges.
These types of disputes can take months to be resolved, and all the while the victim of identity theft suffers from a variety of negative consequences. Standard identity fraud can result in frustrating phone calls with your bank and perhaps a diminished credit score, but a stolen medical identity can be even worse. According to the Wall Street Journal, people who have had their medical identity stolen may lose their health insurance or deplete their benefits, and are of course bound to lose time, productivity and out-of-pocket expenses while trying to restore their coverage.
How to protect yourself from identity theft
The Federal Trade Commission lists several warning signs that may indicate that you are paying for medical services that you never received:
a bill medical services that were never performed
a call from a debt collector about unperformed medical services
unfamiliar medical collection notices on your credit report
a notice from your health plan stating that you have reached a benefit limit
denial of insurance because of inaccurate medical records
These signs aren’t always easy to spot, especially if a thief is careful only to incur small, sporadic charges. A $10,000 bill for a surgery you haven’t had will probably stand out, but you may not notice a $20 pharmacy charge on your credit card statement every couple weeks, and this sort of sustained theft can go on undetected for months, even years.
In the case of medical identity theft, then, the best offense is a good defense. Make sure that you don’t find yourself among the hundreds of thousands of Americans currently trying to get their lives back on track after identity theft. Be sure to safeguard your personal information; be on the lookout for scams that ask for your social security number, address, name or credit card number; and make sure to keep a close eye on monthly credit statements and hospital bills. You may also want to consider looking into the variety of services offered by anti-identity theft companies.