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Advice & More June 2012

Beware the Danger of Carrying Your Medicare Card

By Teresa Ambord

    Yet ironically, your Medicare card also bears your Social Security number, and Medicare advises that you must carry that card. Thieves know about this inconsistency, and that is why one of the easiest ways to have your identity stolen is if your Medicare card falls into the wrong hands.

     

    A thief who can get your SSN, especially if combined with your birth date, has a powerful tool that can strip your assets. So if your Medicare card and your driver’s license are both in your wallet and the wallet is lost or stolen, you could be in serious jeopardy. Most people associate identity theft with computer use, said Conti.

    You hear it all the time. That is, advice to not carry your Social Security card with you. But what about your Medicare card? A thief who manages to lay hold of your wallet stands to score a much bigger hit if he or she also gets your Social Security number (SSN). That’s why the Social Security Administration gives this advice on their Web site:

    • Show your card to your employer when you start a job so your records are correct. Provide your Social Security number to your financial institution(s) for tax reporting purposes.
    • Keep your card and any other document that shows your Social Security number on it in a safe place. DO NOT routinely carry your card or other documents that display your number.

    Yet ironically, your Medicare card also bears your Social Security number, and Medicare advises that you must carry that card. Thieves know about this inconsistency, and that is why one of the easiest ways to have your identity stolen is if your Medicare card falls into the wrong hands.

    Medicare is aware of the problem because the complaints are rampant. But because of the cost to change the system, they are dragging their feet on fixing this obvious error.

    What Can You Do?

    The most common advice is actually pretty good. Photocopy your Medicare card and make a few copies, actually fold one into wallet‑size. On all copies, black out the last four digits of your Social Security number, or use scissors to cut out the digits. If you use a black marker to obscure the number, hold the card up to a strong light to make sure the numbers are no longer readable. Then put the original and all but one or two copies in a safe place, just like you do with your Social Security card.

    Chances are when you visit your regular physician, he or she has your original card on file. Showing them your copy, along with photo ID if they ask for it, should be more than enough. But if you are unsure, call your physician before your next visit and ask if this will work.

    If you need to see an unfamiliar medical professional, call ahead if possible and ask if you must bring your original card to the initial visit. Explain your concern. If you are advised to bring your original, just be certain to ask for it back after you present it, and then take it home and secure it again.

    According to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PRC) which is a San Diego, California- based nonprofit consumer organization dedicated to consumer information and consumer advocacy even if you are taken to an emergency room in an unconscious state, you need not worry. The hospital should be able to look up your information. Diane Corrigan, CFO of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania told reporters that not having your card might delay billing, but eventually the hospital will be able to determine your eligibility. Meanwhile, your identity is protected.

    Meanwhile, What Is Being Done to Remedy this Problem?

    Both Houses of Congress are looking at bills that mandate Medicare to devise unique numbers. But as you already know, government doesn’t do anything quickly. U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, from New York is sponsoring a bill known as the Social Security Protection Act, which would eliminate the use of SSNs on Medicare cards. Thirty‑three states bar the use of SSNs on health insurance cards, said Gillibrand’s office, yet the federal government has no such prohibition.

    Lt. Colonel Gregory Conti (Army) is a computer security specialist at West Point. He said that a thief who can get your SSN, especially if combined with your birth date, has a powerful tool that can strip your assets. So if your Medicare card and your driver’s license are both in your wallet and the wallet is lost or stolen, you could be in serious jeopardy. Most people associate identity theft with computer use, said Conti.

    He told reporters, equal parts of identity theft, if not the majority of it, happens in the physical world, in the world of paper documents. In other words, the old‑fashioned pickpockets are still around in force, and they know good targets when they see them. But, he added, the proposed legislation is probably a step forward in hampering thieves.

    You can become an advocate for common sense in the federal government by calling, writing, or emailing your U.S. Senator or congressperson and expressing your concerns. Think it won’t help? Here’s what I did. In researching this article, I found one state revenue agency that advised Medicare recipients to:

    • Find and begin to carry your Medicare card effective January 1, 2011.

    I clicked the contact us button, and sent them a message asking why they instruct Medicare recipients to carry a card emblazoned with their Social Security numbers. One day later the state benefits manager returned my message. She explained that this document had been overlooked. She thanked me for calling it to her attention, and was having it removed from the state website. We have a long way to go to get the federal government to revoke this dangerous practice of printing SSNs on our Medicare cards. But the more noise we make, the more pressure we can put on Congress to step up and do what is right.

    Contact your representatives in Congress by logging onto http://www.usa.gov/Contact/Elected.shtml, or check your local paper for their contact information.


    Teresa Ambord is a former accountant and Enrolled Agent with the IRS. Now she writes full time from her home, mostly for business, and about family when the inspiration strikes.


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