When thieves take your personal data to get prescription drugs, doctor care, or surgery, it can endanger your health and trash your finances.

It began like an ordinary purse snatching. The credit card reader on the gas pump at her Houston neighborhood station wasn’t working, so Deborah Ford went inside to pay. By the time she returned to the car, her purse and wallet were gone. Ford filed a police report, canceled credit cards, and requested a new driver’s license and health insurance card. She checked with the bank several times to be sure nothing was funny, then forgot about it.

Two years later, the retired postal worker received an unsettling call from a bail bondsman; she was about to be arrested for acquiring more than 1,700 prescription opioid painkiller pills through area pharmacies.

Turns out the thief altered Ford’s driver’s license and used that and her stolen health insurance card to go to doctors to seek prescription painkillers. Eventually, Ford says, a pharmacist became suspicious and called police.

Inside Medical Identity Theft
Ford’s story is but one glimpse of what medical identity theft can look like these days and why it has become a fast-growing strain of identity theft, with an estimated 2.3 million cases identified in 2014, a number that’s up almost 22 percent from the year before.

Your personal health insurance information, including your Social Security number, address, and email address, is valuable and vulnerable. When it gets into the wrong hands it can be used to steal expensive medical services—even surgeries—and prescription drugs or to procure medical devices or equipment such as wheelchairs. Your medical identity is a commodity that can be hijacked and used to falsify insurance claims or to fraudulently acquire government benefits such as Medicare or Medicaid. Your personal medical information may also be sold on the black market, where it can be used to create entirely new medical identities based on your data.

But there’s another, far more dangerous problem with medical identity theft: The thief’s own medical treatment, history, and diagnoses can get mixed up with your own electronic health records—potentially tainting and complicating your care for years to come. And that isn’t a hypothetical problem.

“About 20 percent of victims have told us that they got the wrong diagnosis or treatment, or that their care was delayed because there was confusion about what was true in their records due to the identity theft,” says Ann Patterson, a senior vice president of the Medical Identity Fraud Alliance (MIFA), a group of several dozen healthcare organizations and businesses working to reduce the crime and its negative effects.

Spotting It, Preventing it
Here are a few basic ways you can safeguard your medical privacy and identity: Read those explanation of benefits letters as if they were bank statements. Carefully check all of the correspondence you receive from health insurers and healthcare providers for accuracy and for bills of service that you don’t recognize. Also review your credit reports for unfamiliar debts. Be stingy with your personal health information, Social Security card, and insurance cards. If someone asks for them, inquire whether it is really necessary.

And don’t post news of an upcoming surgery on Facebook or other social media outlets, Patterson recommends. You can’t really be sure who might see it. Consider, for example, that a criminal could scoop up the notice of your impending hip replacement and add it to other information he or she can easily find about you online, creating a more robust, more exploitable personal profile. As Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the ITRC, says, “Our rule of thumb is if it’s not something you’d want plastered on a billboard, don’t post it. Because essentially every single thing you post has that potential.”

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August 25, 2016 By Michelle Andrews, Consumer Reports, Oct. 2016 issue