Support Marketplace

Medical identity theft climbs

Someone using tweezers to pluck an ID card represents identity theft.

Kai Ryssdal: So we were just talking about hacking and data theft, which can sometime lead to identity theft. Now we're going to turn to different kind of ID theft.
One that doesn't get a whole lot of attention. One that victims sometimes don't find out about until years later. One that can be messy and expensive to fix -- and harmful to your health.

Ashley Milne-Tyte reports.


Ashley Milne-Tyte: You expect your roommate to make off with your t-shirt, some food, maybe some old CDs. Scott Bennett's made off with his identity. Not long after, Bennett started hearing from hospitals and collection agencies demanding payment for treatment he'd never had. He's been trying to clear up the mess ever since.

Scott Bennett: Right here on top is actually a police report with fingerprints where I had to go locally to a police station to be fingerprinted...

Over the years Bennett has spent untold hours trying to prove he was hundreds of miles away in his home town of San Antonio, when the fake Scott Bennett was being treated at hospitals in Nevada. It's not as easy as it sounds because health privacy laws protect the patient -- even if the patient is an imposter.

Bennett: In order to battle this I need to know a lot of information about the actual charges, the doctors, procedures, things that have taken place, in order to fill out police reports. And that information cannot legally be given to me, so that makes it difficult also.

A recent survey conducted by the Ponemon Institute for Experian, the credit reporting bureau, says medical identity theft costs victims around $20,000 in lost time, increased insurance premiums and legal fees. And the recession has made things worse.

Larry Ponemon is chairman of the Ponemon Institute.

Larry Ponemon: Thirty-six percent say a family member actually took and used their personal identification.

Including insurance cards, to get medical care. That's up from last year. Medical identity theft costs providers and insurers around $2 billion a year. Once another patient masquerades as you, your medical records are inaccurate, and that can jeopardize your future treatment.

Linn Freedman heads the privacy practice at law firm Nixon Peabody.

Linn Freedman: This hospital or this doctor's office has treated this person as you. They've come in with an ailment and now all of those medical records are under your name and physicians are relying upon that medical information, which is false.

Victims have found their records showing everything from a different blood type to diseases and operations they've never had. They've also found their insurance benefits have been spent. The shift to electronic record keeping should make it somewhat easier to track medical identity theft. But it can only do so much.

Pam Dixon is director of the World Privacy Forum.

Pam Dixon: Even the most extensive audit trail that I've personally ever seen in the field, it doesn't reach to the subcontractors. And any hospital system is going to have hundreds and hundreds of subcontractors to make things work.

Like back-office billing operations and labs. Dixon says sometimes a staff member sells off patient information. Sometimes criminals buy a clinic to commit fraud, billing insurers for procedures that never took place.

It's been 10 years, and Scott Bennett is still haunted by his persistent thief. The situation is a strain on the whole family.

Bennett: It's stressful. You know, some of the questions we've had is what if this gentleman dies using my identification? What happens to my Social Security, what happens to life insurance?

His identity thief was at a hospital in Oregon recently. He says the bills should make their way to Texas in a few months.

I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.

About the author

Ashley Milne-Tyte is the host of a podcast about women in the workplace called The Broad Experience.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...