(ARA) - Two million Americans fall victim to medical identity theft each year, according to a study by the Ponemon Institute, commissioned by Experian's ProtectMyID. While medical identity theft costs victims an average of $22,346, the potential impact can be far greater - medical identity theft could cost some victims their health, or even their lives.
Medical identity theft involves the theft of personal information - such as your name, Social Security number or Medicare number - to obtain medical care, purchase drugs or submit false claims to Medicare. The crime can damage a victim's credit rating and even be life-threatening if it causes incorrect information to appear in a victim's personal medical records, warns the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's Office of the Inspector General (OIG).
According to the study, while more Americans now understand just what medical identity theft is, few are taking the key steps that could help prevent it. Only 57 percent of survey respondents check their medical records for accuracy, and nearly one in five (18 percent) say they don't care about the accuracy of their medical records.
"There are specific things that people can and should do to protect themselves from medical identity theft," says Ken Chaplin, senior vice president of ProtectMyID. "People have to be vigilant with their personal information and avoid letting their guard down, even with family and friends."
The Federal Trade Commission recommends you take these steps to help prevent medical identity theft:
* Before you share medical information with anyone, verify who you're talking to. Never provide information over the phone or through the mail unless you initiated the contact and you're confident you're dealing with a legitimate organization. Be aware that medical identity thieves often try to scam consumers by posing as representatives of insurance companies, doctor's offices, pharmacies and even government agencies.
* Protect your information. Keep paper copies of medical or insurance records and forms in a secure, locked file or drawer. When managing your health or insurance accounts online, be wary of any site that asks you to share sensitive information like your Social Security number, insurance account number or details of your medical conditions. Look for the hallmarks that a website is secure, including a web address (URL) that begins with "https" (the "s" stands for "secure") and a lock symbol in the lower right-hand corner of the page.
* Picking through trash is a common ploy of identity thieves. Shred your discarded health insurance forms, bills and medical records before disposing of them. Destroy the labels on your prescription pill bottles and packages before throwing them away.
The OIG also offers tips for medical identity theft protection, including:
* Treat your Medicare and Social Security numbers and cards as carefully as you would your credit cards.
* Be wary of anyone who asks for your Medicare number in exchange for "free" medical equipment or services. If what they're offering is really free, they shouldn't need your numbers.
* Never let anyone use your Medicare ID card. The Ponemon survey found that a growing number of survey respondents (5 percent more in 2012 than in 2011) have allowed a family member to use their personal identification to obtain medical services, including treatment, healthcare products or pharmaceuticals. Doing so is against the law, and may afford unscrupulous individuals the chance to use that information for unauthorized purposes.
According to the Ponemon survey, it takes, on average, about a year to resolve an instance of medical identity theft, and a quarter of the survey respondents said it took more than two years. As with a serious medical issue, resolution can be made more challenging depending on how long the problem is allowed to fester.
Take an active role in protecting your medical information from identity thieves. Check your medical records regularly and keep an eye on all your financial and credit accounts. Products like ProtectMyID can help. A comprehensive identity theft detection, protection and resolution product, it can help you prevent the damages caused by identity theft.
"Medical identity theft hits consumers both medically and financially," says Dr. Larry Ponemon, chairman and founder of the Ponemon Institute. "For three years in a row, our findings have consistently shown that medical identity theft crime continues to increase in terms of prevalence and costs to the victim."