Medical Identity Theft: How to Protect Yourself

The phone call was terrifying -- a child protection services worker accused Anndorie Sachs of giving birth to a child that had tested positive for methamphetamine.

"Panic, absolute panic," Sachs said.

And then, confusion. Sachs hadn't given birth in more than two years. After investigating the phone call, the Salt Lake City mother of four realized she had been the victim of medical identity theft. Someone gave birth using Sachs' name and her medical insurance to pay for it.

Authorities say that as Americans continue to struggle to pay their bills, more sophisticated thieves are turning to medical identity theft, making medical insurance fraud a top priority for government and private healthcare officials.

"We have definitely seen an increase in medical identity theft over the last year," said Jennifer Trussell, director of investigations for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

More than 300,000 Americans were victims of such identity theft in 2009, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

In Sachs case, an alleged drug abuser who was pregnant in 2006 was found to have stolen Sach's driver's license and obtained her medical records before giving birth under Sachs' name.

But convincing medical investigators that she hadn't given birth wasn't easy.

"I said I had not recently had a baby, that my youngest were 2 years old," Sachs said. "I said, 'Come meet me and you'll know that I didn't just have a baby."

Investigators still made her life a living hell, she said, questioning her employers and interrogating her children.

Joe Ryan had a similar experience. He received a more than $40,000 bill for surgery he never had.

"The hospital actually thought that I was going make this $44,000 payment, and I was proving to them I have no scars from a surgery," he said. "And they said, 'No, we're going to go ahead and pursue this.' And I was in disbelief. I said, 'Are you kidding me?'"

Medical Identity Theft on the Rise

Authorities said medical identity thieves are becoming better organized and bolder.

"We have heard reports of receptionists specifically being sent in by some of these identity theft rings to do nothing more than steal identities," Trussell said.

Ryan said the hospital that accused him of trying to dodge the surgery bill absorbed the loss in the end. But his credit was ruined.

The woman who stole Sachs' identity was eventually charged, but Sachs has since installed locks and a new alarm system at her home and worries the same thing could happen again.

"I mean the hospital didn't want to help me. The police didn't want to help me. You're really on your own with this," she said.

The Dangers of Medical Identity Theft

According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, medical identity theft happens when someone, without your knowledge or consent, uses your identity to receive medical treatment.

If this happens to you, it can have serious repercussions.

For example, if your medical identity is stolen, your medical records may be altered and may show incorrect information. This may prevent your obtaining proper medical care and insurance benefits, according to the FTC.

What You Can Do to Prevent Medical Identity Theft

1. Keep a close eye on information in your credit report. Identify any medical debts on the report and make sure they are yours.

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