Medical identity theft, a worrying diagnosis

Most people equate the term “identity fraud” to the loss of money, however medical identity theft is a serious crime that is often harder to detect and remedy than financial fraud.

Criminals are stealing people’s identities to obtain prescription drugs and access medical services, as evidenced by a recent case in Western Australia. A woman was convicted of using the stolen identities of five women to obtain significant amounts of powerful painkillers containing morphine, which she used to make heroin. She also sold them to users and dealers.

Medical identity theft can be overlooked by victims of home invasions, purses or wallets snatches or cybercrime, with people initially more concerned about the loss of money, jewellery or other property. Yet the hijacking of medical information can have dire consequences for victims.

The impact of medical identity theft

An American woman’s identity was used for maternity care at a hospital. When the criminal’s baby was born drug-affected, authorities accused the theft victim of neglect and threatened to remove her own four children from her care. The victim had to undergo DNA testing to prove that identity theft had occurred and to have her name removed from the infant’s birth certificate.

Also in the US, a woman who had her purse stolen was told two years later that she was about to be arrested for acquiring more than 1,700 prescription opioid painkiller pills through pharmacies.

Crimes such as these have serious repercussions for victims. A 2016 survey by the Australian Institute of Criminology found that the impacts included victims being refused credit, severe emotional distress, physical health issues, victims being wrongly accused of a crime, and the loss of a home or car. The unravelling of medical identity theft can take weeks, months or even years, proving costly in both time and money.

How big is the problem?

In Australia, identity crime – which can include the fabrication, manipulation or theft of identities – is one of the biggest crimes in the country, costing up to $3 billion every year. The Australian Federal Police describes it as “a critical threat to the Australian community”, and every year the personal information of 1.7 million Australians is misused or stolen.

In the US, up to 2.5 million cases of medical identity theft are uncovered annually, and the figure is increasing all of the time.

Theft from individuals is only one part of the problem. Cybercrime targeting organisations can leave millions of people’s health data exposed – take the case of US health insurer Anthem, which sent a wave of panic through the healthcare industry in 2015 when it was revealed that hackers had accessed the company’s customer database, finding the names, social security numbers and other personal information of 78 million people.

What are the signs of medical identity theft?

Victims of this type of crime might take a while to realise that their identity has been compromised. Unlike credit card fraud, where the banks are becoming increasingly sophisticated and efficient in notifying people of breaches, a knock on the door from the police might be the first inkling of wrongdoing that a medical theft victim might have. They might also receive a bill for medical services they didn’t access, a call from a debt collector about a debt they didn’t owe, a notice from their insurance company saying they had reached their benefit limit, or be refused services because they are told they are already receiving them.

The criminal is not always a stranger

A study by the cybersecurity research firm, Ponemon Institute, found that almost 50% of medical theft is perpetrated by a relative or someone known to the victim. In some cases, the victim voluntarily lets someone use their medical information.

What can you do to protect your identity?

The Australian Government’s Stay Smart Online initiative has 10 key tips:

  1. Secure your personal documents at home, when you are travelling and if you need to destroy them.
  2. Secure your mailbox with a lock and when you move, redirect your mail.
  3. Be cautious about using social media and limit the amount of personal information you publish online.
  4. Secure your computer and mobile phone with security software and strong passwords and avoid using public computers for sensitive activities.
  5. Learn how to avoid common scams at
  6. Be cautious about requests for your personal information over the internet, phone and in person in case it is a scam.
  7. Investigate the arrival of new credit cards you didn’t ask for or bills for goods and services that aren’t yours.
  8. Be alert for any unusual bank transactions or missing mail.
  9. If you are a victim of identity theft – report it to the police and any relevant organisations.
  10. Order a free copy of your credit report from a credit reporting agency on a regular basis, particularly if your identity has been stolen.

Cited – The Power of Proof

Cited is a streamlined online platform that checks individuals’ identities and helps to manage the validity of workers’ credentials, giving organisations assurance about the ongoing integrity of their workforce. Cited is one of only a handful of Gateway Service Providers to the Australian Government’s Document Verification Service (DVS), a national online system that compares a person’s identifying information with government records.

Go to Cited for more information.