Identity theft affects millions of Americans every year, causing financial ruin and damaging credit histories that can take months or years to repair.
Unfortunately, a specific type of identity theft is on the rise: medical identity theft. But, what is medical identity theft, and how does it differ from a classic case of identity theft?
Medical identity theft occurs when someone steals your personal information in order to obtain medical care, buy drugs or submit fake billings to Medicare in your name, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
Unlike financial identity theft - which occurs when someone illegally uses your personal financial information to empty your bank account or rack up charges on credit cards taken out in your name - medical identity theft can have other serious consequences and is more difficult to clear up.
Any type of treatment, diagnosis or surgery that occurs with a stolen identity could become a part of your medical record.
This could affect your access to medical care, insurance benefits and the acquired debts could end up on your credit report.
For someone to commit medical identity theft, your Social Security number isn't necessarily needed as your name, birthday and address could be enough.
According to the private cybersecurity research firm, Ponemon Institute, an estimated 2.3 million cases of medical identity theft were identified in 2014, a 22 percent increase from 2013.
Better Business Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission offer the following advice to help prevent your medical information from falling into the wrong hands:
Watch out for red flags. Signs of medical identity theft may include receiving a bill for medical services you never received, medical collection notices on your credit report you don't recognize or a call from a debt collector about a medical debt you don't owe.
If you see a mistake, contact your health insurance provider and report it.
Keep copies of your medical records. Keep copies of your medical history, receipts and/or bills from treatments or doctor visits.
Keep a record of your prescription history including the doctor who prescribed and the pharmacy that filled a prescription. Federal law allows you to have copies of your medical or billing records, and if your request is ever denied, you have the right to appeal.
Read the statements from your health insurance plan. Make sure to read your medical and insurance statements regularly and completely, as these documents can show warning signs of identity theft.
Read the Explanation of Benefits (EOB) statement that your health plan sends after treatment. Also, check the name of the provider, the date of service and the service provided.
Check that the claims paid match the care you received. If you see a mistake, contact your health insurance company and report the problem.
Protect your personal information. Read your credit card and bank statements carefully and often.
Shred all personal and financial documents, including outdated medical documents and old prescription labels.
Also, don't share medical or insurance information by phone or email unless you initiated the contact and know who you're dealing with.
Check your credit report. BBB recommends checking your credit report with the three credit bureaus at least once a year. This will help you detect any fraud, and it's easy and free. Visit AnnualCreditReport.com for your copy.
Some of these steps may seem excessive now but just ask someone who has had their identity stolen, especially their medical identity, and they will agree that these steps would have been much easier than fighting to regain your good name.
For more trustworthy consumer tips, visit bbb.org.