Image: Insurance Money © Comstock Images-Jupiterimages

Related topics: health care, health insurance, identity theft, financial privacy, Liz Weston

I've written about how annoying it is to get asked for identification when using a credit card.

But that's nothing compared with what can happen when you try to get health care in some areas.

At a recent mammogram appointment in Los Angeles, I was asked for my driver's license when I checked in at the front desk and again when I met with the intake clerk who took my health insurance information. The woman who guided me back to the exam room didn't demand my driver's license, but she did ask me to rattle off my date of birth.

The reason they were so interested in making sure I was who I said I was? Health care identity theft, which is on the rise.

Sierra Morgan of Modesto, Calif., certainly wishes someone had asked for ID when a thief pretending to be her charged a $12,000 liposuction procedure to the health care credit account Morgan had opened to pay for braces for her teeth.

Morgan didn't learn about the crime until she logged in to the account to pay the bill and saw the charge.

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

"I was like, 'What do I do?'" recounted Morgan, 31. "I was freaking out."

Morgan did have the satisfaction of seeing her doppelgänger arrested. Morgan worked with the clinic manager, who set up another appointment for the thief to get additional services. When the thief showed up, the clinic called the police, and she was hauled off to jail.

Other victims have been dunned for medical procedures, including childbirths, dental work, methadone treatments and even breast implants they hadn't received, said Linda Foley, the director of the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego.

The crime can take many forms, including:

  • Large-scale theft of identities by computer hackers or others who might, for example, sell the information or use it to bill insurers for treatments at phony clinics.
  • Crimes of opportunity, such as when a thief gets your wallet and uses or sells your health insurance information.
  • Crimes by friends, family or others you know who have access to your information.

One woman discovered she had become a victim when she went to a new dentist and was asked to pay an overdue bill, Foley said. After some questioning, the woman realized her mother had stolen her dental coverage to get treatment.

Recovering from health care identity theft can be tough. The bills, collection calls and damaged credit are all hassle enough, but an even bigger concern is that the thief's medical records could get commingled with your own, causing future problems.

"That can cause a misdiagnosis or delay a diagnosis," Foley said. "What if it's something that prevents you from getting life insurance?"

Health care fraud cases were just a fraction of identity theft reported in 2009, with 275,000 cases reported, compared with 11 million total victims of all identity theft, according to Javelin Strategy & Research, which tracks these crimes.

But the number of cases doubled from the previous year. Identity theft experts expect the problem will continue to get worse.

Some medical providers are already responding, as mine did, by checking identities and even taking pictures of those who seek treatment, so they can be compared in case health care fraud allegations are made. Some providers insist all patients be checked, even if they're well-known to the staff.

"My pharmacist says: 'Hi, Linda. How are you? May I see your ID?'" Foley said, laughing. It's absurd, she acknowledges, but she believes it's also necessary to curb the problem. "People are getting hurt."