Medical identity theft is a growing problem. In fact, nearly 2.3 million Americans are victims, and there are roughly 250,000 cases a year. In the majority of thefts, the victims paid – up to $13,500 – to resolve the crime.

Medical identity theft is the theft of your personal information, accomplished to get medical care, buy drugs or submit bills to Medicare in your name. The personal information can be your Social Security number, your Medicare number or your name. For the victim, medical identity theft can be devastating. It can destroy your credit rating and use up a tremendous amount of time. It’s an enormous, expensive and time-consuming violation. The good news is that there are ways you can protect yourself.

To protect yourself, you should first understand how medical identity theft works. Most thefts occur at the physician’s office, where an employee steals the medical information. Criminals pay the employee for the information and then sell it on the black market. Often the criminal will sell the medical information to someone who needs surgery. That person then seeks medical treatment under the stolen name and insurance information, but changes the mailing address. The victim of the medical identity theft never receives the bills and thus remains unaware of the theft.

How do you know if you are a victim of medical identity theft? A clear sign of medical theft is if you get a bill for medical treatment that you did not receive or see the wrong listing of office visits on your explanation of benefits. Other signs of fraud may include a phone call from a debt collector asking about medical debt that you do not owe or collection notices on your credit report that you do not recognize.

What steps can you take for medical identity theft protection? One way is to protect your Social Security number. At a hospital, your Social Security number is your identity. When checking in, ask if they can use another type of number. If they must use your Social Security number, then black out all of the numbers except for the last four digits. View your medical records – you can request a copy when you visit your physician’s office. Always shred insurance and medical documents that are no longer pertinent. Do not put stamped letters and documents in your home mailbox for the mail carrier to collect; to protect your mail, deposit it directly into Postal Service mailboxes. Request online access to insurance billing information rather than dealing with paper bills. Online documents are more secure than paper and not subject to crimes of opportunity. Finally, be on alert when someone requests your Social Security number or other personal information.

What can you do if you are a victim of theft? You should file a police report immediately. In addition, fix any incorrect information on your medical record. This is important because false information on your record can affect your health care. Many insurance companies have fraud hotlines. If you suspect you are a victim, call the hotline phone number.

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