A recent study is providing some additional insight into why Americans should take every step possible to protect themselves from medical identity theft.
According to data from the Ponemon Institute, about 1.5 million Americans have been victimized by this form of identity theft, suffering financial damage of up to $28.6 billion - which amounts to an average of $20,000 per victim.
"This study confirms that there is not only a significant financial impact to medical identity theft, but that there is a very real danger of erroneous diagnosis and treatment because of medical records that contain false information," said Dr. Larry Ponemon of the Ponemon Institute.
Ponemon also noted that criminals will typically use a stolen health insurance card to try to falsely obtain medical services, and that this form of identity theft can take a particularly long time to detect.
The study found that more than half of consumers had taken a year or more to learn they had been victimized by medical identity theft, in part because many people, especially if they are healthy, will not use medical services nearly as often as they use their credit cards. In contrast, only about 6 percent of consumers said they had found out their data was breached in a timely fashion.
Potentially worse was the finding that a sizeable number of people had been victimized for falsely obtained medical services by people they knew, which also contributed to a relatively large percentage of victims not actually reporting these crimes to the police.
Sometimes people can also have their medical data breached when healthcare institutions fail to properly secure such information, allowing hackers and other thieves to gain access. Even old paper records may be fair game for criminals if they are left in accessible areas after being disposed of.
For victims of medical identity theft, there is a chance that they could end up receiving improper care and prescriptions because of the likelihood that inaccurate information will end up on their record. Another serious consequence of the crime is a damaged credit score caused by false medical bills showing up on one's credit report, and in some cases, the situation could even result in lost health insurance coverage.
Given these dangers, it's important to regularly check one's credit report for suspicious activity and to put all sensitive documents kept in a secure place.