New laws and technology bring opportunities, like more health care coverage for more of us and faster computers to help us work better. They also bring opportunities for scammers and criminals, and that's what you may face in 2010 and later.
As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, or the "Stimulus Bill," billions of dollars were set aside for a project to make all of our medical records electronic. Meaning, our records will stored, updated, and transferred from doctor to doctor electronically through computers and other digital devices.
The goal is to have all medical records in electronic form by 2014, and the work is underway right now in 2010.
The problem is, while electronic records may, as predicted, cut red tape, lower the need to repeat expensive medical tests and save lives by cutting down on medical errors, there are concerns over privacy and security. Who will be able to access your records once they're housed in a national computer network? There are some valid security concerns.
Theft of medical records, or "medical identity theft," is when someone, without you knowing it and without your permission, uses your personal information - like your name, social security number, or insurance policy number - to pay for medical treatment, get prescription drugs, or submit false insurance claims.
What You Can Do
It's not a new phenomenon; it's been happening at least since 2006. But with electronic records on the horizon,now is a good time to know what to look for, how to prevent it, and what to do if you become a victim:
- Protect your personal information. Don't give anyone you don't know and trust your social security number, insurance information, Medicare number, or other personal information. There are all kinds of scams out there, like one where people are contacted by telephone or email and asked to give this information as part of a "health survey" or offers for "free medical supplies"
- Read the explanation of benefits (EOB) forms you get from your insurance company after you visit the doctor. Check to make sure the name of the doctor, the treatment you received, and the date you got the treatment are all accurate. The same goes for any bills you receive from your doctor, but also check to see if you're being billed more than once for the same thing. If you see errors, contact the doctor's office and your insurance company immediately
- Check your credit report at least once a year. Look for unpaid credit card charges for medical services or equipment you didn't ask for or receive. If you see such an error, contact the credit reporting agencies and dispute the charges
- If you think you've been the victim of medical identity theft, immediately file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
Have you ever heard of "scareware?" If you haven't, you've probably seen it. It usually starts with a "pop up" message on your computer screen warning you about a "malicious" or harmful detected on your computer.Then, you're asked to run a "free security scan" to fix the problem. Often, users are prompted to buy special anti-virus software or program to "clean" the computer and keep it safe.
In reality, however, your computer was just fine. Nothing was "fixed," and the only thing you installed on your computer is, in fact, a type of malicious file or program you were trying to get rid of. That file or program, unfortunately, may let scammers access your computer and any personal information you have stored on it, like passwords, credit card information, and even tax returns. Or, the program may be a virus that could damage or destroy your computer.
This isn't a new scam, but according to security software giant McAfee:
- There's been a 660% rise in scareware over the past two years
- About 1 million people everyday around the world fall victim to a scareware scam, and
- Scammers take about $300 million from consumers around the world
To thwart what it sees as perhaps the most costly online scam in 2010,McAfee offers a free email alert tool to help consumers like us avoid the threats.
What You can Do
There are some things you can do right now to keep your computer and wallet safe:
- Make sure you have good, reliable anti-virus and other security software installed on your computer, and make sure it's up-to-date and running every time you turn on your computer. If you have good software, you don't need the "free scan" or "software" offered by the scammers
- If you get an offer for software or a free scan (yes, there are some legitimate companies that offer free scans), run an internet search on the name of the company or software. If it's a scam, someone on the internet knows about it and can warn you about it
- If you get an unsolicited email message that looks like it may be scareware, don't open any attachments or links in the message. Doing so may activate the program. Simply delete the message or send it to your "spam" or "junk" folder
- Don't trust the pop-ups, even if they look legitimate. Scammers are smart and they've created pop-ups and screens that look like they're coming from your computer. To avoid problems, close the web browser containing the pop-up. Don't click No or Cancel, or the x at the top of the pop-up
- Report any suspected fraud to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
In tough economic times when there's so much uncertainty, one thing is certain: There's always someone out there trying to take your money. Whether it's medical records, fake computer programs, or any other scam, it's up to you to know how to avoid the pitfalls and protect yourself.
Questions For Your Attorney
- Is there any way I can get my money back from scammers who "sold" me a security program for my computer?
- What can I do if my doctor's office says it can't find all of my medical records?
- If I'm a victim of medical identity fraud because my records were stolen from a government computer or data base, can I sue the US government?