Editorial Policy

How to recognize and correct identity theft

Eva Norlyk Smith Ph.D.

September 15, 2014

QDear Eva,

What are the signs that someone has stolen your identity, and what are the first things you should do about it? –Lou

AHi Lou,

That is a good question, because in some cases, years go by before someone discovers that his or her identity has been stolen. And, the more time that goes by before you discover the identity theft, the more damage your credit will suffer.Ask Eva

Identity thieves strike in many ways. They may open credit cards or other credit accounts in your name. They may drain your bank account or take out an auto loan using your identity.

But while financial identity theft is what most consumers fear, a far more common type of identity theft these days is medical identity theft. Almost 44 percent of identity theft breaches in 2013 were medical in nature, according to IDTheftCenter.org. In comparison, financial and credit-related identity theft was only 3.7 percent of the total.

An estimated 1.8 million Americans were victims of medical identity theft in 2013, according to Ponemon Institute's 2013 Survey on Medical Identity Theft. In one of the most common types of medical fraud, criminals use a person's name, Social Security number and health insurance numbers to order health care services that are never delivered. They then turn around and bill Medicare and Medicaid for those services.

Like financial identity theft, medical identity theft can damage your credit, if unpaid medical bills find their way to your credit report. It could even put your life at risk, if incorrect information associated with the fraudulent activity gets incorporated into your medical records.

For both financial and medical theft, the telltale signs to look out for are bills or accounts that you don't recognize. Never ignore a bill in the mail for services or charges you didn't initiate; it can be the first sign that your identity has been compromised. Read all correspondence and bills from your health insurance company and financial providers to make sure you recognize all charges.

In addition, an essential first line of defense is to pull your credit report regularly. You are entitled to get a free copy of your credit reports once a year from the three major credit bureaus at www.AnnualCreditReport.com. If you pull one report at a time, you can download one report every four months. Look for credit accounts you didn't open, unpaid medical charges you don't recognize, as well as any other unusual activity that might indicate identity theft.

If your identity is compromised, what can you do? If your credit report indicates financial fraud, put a fraud alert on the credit report and even a credit freeze to stop any further fraudulent activity. In addition, take steps to report the identity theft to your bank, credit card companies and any other financial institutions you do business with. Report the fraud to the Federal Trade Commission. The FDIC offers steps to take as well as  how to contact the major credit bureaus, TransUnion, Experian and Equifax.

You will also need to create an Identity Theft Report, which will prove essential to help you get fraudulent information removed from your credit report, get information about accounts compromised or created by the identity thieves, as well as stop any debt collections resulting from the fraudulent charges. It is a lot of hassle and many hours of work, but you need to go through these steps to make sure your name is cleared.

As far as medical fraud goes, there are fewer protections in place. Never give out your health insurance identification number to strangers, and watch out for schemes such as bogus health fairs where scammers may take your blood pressure and ask to see your Medicare card. Periodically review your medical records when you visit a physician or have a medical procedure. That way you can make sure that no activity is added that indicates medical fraud.

If you find evidence of medical fraud, contact the police and notify the Federal Trade Commission's identity theft hotline, 877-ID-THEFT (877-438-4338), or online.  If Medicare- or Medicaid-services are involved, you can report the fraud online or by calling 800-HHS-TIPS (800-447-8477).

Got a question for Eva? Send her an email.