The other day I purchased a shirt from a big box store. As I stood in line waiting to check out, the woman ahead of me asked to use her reward card even though she didn’t have it on her person. “Sure,” said the sales clerk. “Just give me your Social Security number.” I flinched but without stopping, the customer rattled off her Social Security number as if she was rattling off directions to the nearest McDonalds. As the clerk entered her Social Security number I couldn’t help but think about all the data breaches some very big name companies (with presumably big security companies protecting their data) have recently experienced that cost millions of people their personal data. What many people don’t understand is that while having your credit card stolen is a major downer, having your Social Security number stolen is worse.
Identity thieves make a pittance (per incident) for credit card data or bank account information mainly because those accounts are easy to change and take little time to fix. However, thieves with medical information have a treasure trove because it contains one valuable piece of information—your Social Security number.
The Social Security Administration says that identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in America. Your nine-digit Social Security number allows thieves to access credit to open credit cards That would be problem enough but a growing number of people have run into problems with tax returns because thieves have filed a return under someone else’s name in order to get their refund. Another way that a Social Security number can be misused is if someone uses someone else’s Social Security number to get a job. When that person’s employer reports income earned to the IRS using someone else’s Social Security number it looks as if that person did not report all their income on their tax return.
A stolen Social Security number provides thieves with valuable, permanent data that is as valuable decades from now as it is today. That’s why it shouldn’t be used as a personal pin number. Retail stores shouldn’t be using your number to access rewards cards. Perhaps not as obvious, neither should doctor’s offices.
It’s not just your Social Security number that’s valuable. According to the Medical Identity Fraud Alliance, nearly twice as many Americans have had their medical information stolen since their first study five years ago. The effect on victims can be devastating, both financially and medically–financially because it takes the victim’s money to correct and deal with the resulting problems. Sixty-five percent of medical identity victims had to pay an average of $13,500 and over 200 hours to resolve the crime according to a study by the Ponemon Institute. However, medically, victims also suffer from misdiagnosis, mistreatment and delayed healthcare according to the 2014 Fifth Annual Study on Medical Identity Theft. Finally, the theft often negatively effects their reputation, costing 3 percent of victims to lose their employment, 19 percent to miss career opportunities and nearly 90 percent experienced embarrassment over the release of sensitive personal health conditions. Yet, doctor’s offices and insurance companies don’t do nearly enough (some do nothing) to protect clients from thieves.
The Federal Trade Commission offers information on detecting, correcting, protecting and checking medical information.