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Don't fall prey to medical identity theft

Besides high cost, medical ID theft can have deadly consequences

By now, most people know about the perils of identity theft, where someone steals your personal or financial account information and makes fraudulent charges or opens bogus accounts in your name.

Lately, a not-so-new twist has been getting a lot of attention: medical identity theft.

That's where someone gains access to your health insurance or Medicare account information and uses it to submit phony insurance claims, obtain prescription drugs or medical devices or get medical treatment in your name.

Besides its high cost, medical ID theft also can have deadly consequences: Suppose someone poses as you and gets an appendectomy; if you later entered the hospital with abdominal pain, your medical file would show that your appendix was already removed and you could be tragically misdiagnosed.

Here are a few tips for avoiding medical ID fraud and steps to take if it happens:

Your medical files are often full of information ID thieves crave: account numbers for Social Security, health insurance, Medicare or Medicaid, contact information, email address, etc. All it takes is one stolen employee laptop or an intercepted piece of mail or email to leave you vulnerable.

Sophisticated thieves will also hack computer networks of insurance companies, pharmacies, medical equipment suppliers and others who have access to your medical records. And unfortunately, the black market for stolen information is so tempting that employees have been known to steal data.

Common signs of medical identity theft include:

Provider bills or insurance Explanation of Benefits (EOB) forms that reference medical services you didn't receive. (Verify all dates, providers and treatments and look for duplicate billing.)

Calls from debt collectors about unfamiliar bills.

Medical collection notices on your credit report.

Just as you shouldn't hesitate to ask your doctor or nurse whether they washed their hands, so you should feel free to ask what security precautions their business office takes to protect your information.

Here are a few preventive measures to take:

Never reveal personal or account information during unsolicited calls or emails.

Be suspicious if someone offers you free medical equipment or services and then requests your Medicare number.

Never let people borrow your Medicare or insurance card to obtain services for themselves. Not only is this illegal, but it could be disastrous if your medical histories become intermingled (think about differing allergies, blood types, etc.)

Regularly check your credit reports for unpaid bills for unfamiliar medical services or equipment. This could indicate someone has opened a new insurance policy using your identity and is running up charges.

If you suspect or know your information has been compromised, ask for copies of your medical records from each doctor, hospital, pharmacy, lab or health plan where a thief may have used your information. Also request a copy of their "Accounting of Disclosures" form, which lists everyone who got copies of your medical records.

Next, write them all by certified mail explaining which information is inaccurate, along with copies of documents supporting your position. Ask them to correct or delete all errors and to inform everyone they may have sent records to (labs, other doctors, hospitals, etc.) Keep copies of all correspondence and logs of all phone calls or other related activities.

You can also file a police report and contact the fraud units at the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. You may want to place a fraud alert or freeze on your accounts. Visit the Federal Trade Commission's Identity Theft site for more information (www.consumer.ftc.gov/

Jason Alderman directs Visa's financial education programs. To Follow Jason Alderman on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney/

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