Last year, millions of Americans were charged a total of $20 billion for medical services they never received. It’s because of “medical identity theft”—a crime that’s up to 20 times more lucrative than credit card theft.
San Jose resident Ronnie Bogle had no idea his medical ID was stolen until he was rejected in a new credit card application.
“I was really surprised,” he said. “I only have one other credit card and all my payments are on time.”
When the automatic credit report showed up in the mail, he discovered a long trail of unpaid medical bills.
“I was horrified,” said Bogle. “It was literally pages and pages and pages upon pages and more pages of unpaid medical treatments, hospital visits, emergency care that I knew were not mine.”
The treatments were all over the country from Florida and Tennessee to Colorado and Washington. Bogle shared his records with the Investigative Unit, including a $728 charge for an ER treatment at St. Joseph’s in Washington.
Bogle said he had never even set foot in some of those states.
“There are unpaid bills in the thousands of dollars,” said Bogle. “I knew something was very, very wrong.”
Medical identity theft is much harder to recover from than credit card theft. It’s been five years since Ronnie first discovered the trail of medical bills and he is still battling hospitals over the bills.
Unlike with financial ID theft, where you can shut down a bank account or get a new credit card, it’s much tougher to regain control of your medical identity.
“Your medical identity includes things like your date of birth, your social security number, your health insurance,” said Ann Patterson from the Medical ID Fraud Alliance. “Those are things you cannot just shut down and [get] a new one.”
In a new study, Patterson and the Medical ID Fraud Alliance found that medical identity theft was up 21.7% in 2014, affecting 2.3 million Americans. In the majority of cases (65%), victims had to pay an average of $13,500 to resolve the crime. The total damages added up to $20 billion in 2014 alone.
The threat also poses serious health risks, Patterson said.
“If your medical identity is corrupted by the thief’s medical information – so their blood type, their allergies, their diseases, their health conditions are reflected in your health, when you go to get medical goods or services, you can be misdiagnosed or mistreated.”
If a fraudster registers a medical allergy you don’t have, for instance, that allergy will go on your medical record. The next time you’re in a hospital, you might be prevented from getting medicine you need.
Tom Flattery, Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney, said the best defense against medical identity theft is a good offense. He recommends that when people get an explanation of benefits in the mail, they read it carefully to make sure it describes only the treatment they actually received. If something doesn’t look right, Flattery said, you have the right to request your medical records at any time, for any reason.
“You have to protect your medical information from friends and family just like you would with your credit information,” said Flattery.
Medical identity theft by family members is actually extremely common. About a quarter of the people in Patterson’s study had their medical identities stolen by family members. In fact, Ronnie Bogle believes his identity was stolen by his long-lost brother, Gary Bogle.
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“We used to look a lot alike,” said Bogle.
And now the Santa Clara County district attorney’s office is investigating Gary Bogle for identity theft, based on what the Investigative unit has uncovered.”
Ronnie’s brother Gary worked for a carnival company, which would help to explain the nomadic medical treatments all over the country. The Investigative Unit tracked Gary Bogle to Washington state where he was arrested or cited eight times since last November, mostly for nuisance issues and drunken conduct. Each violation was recorded in the name of Ronnie Bogle.
“It’s terrifying,” said Bogle about the criminal record that has accumulated in his name.
The Investigative Unit obtained footage from a patrol car that arrested Gary for public urination and disturbing the peace. In the footage, the police can be clearly heard calling Gary Bogle, “Ronnie” to get his attention
“Yes. My name,” said Ronnie Bogle, watching the footage the Investigative Unit obtained. “And I’m seeing some disgusting person handcuffed.”
The real Ronnie Bogle has reported the theft of his identity to the police. Santa Clara Deputy District Attorney Tom Flattery said that’s the first thing a victim should do, even if it seems like its just paperwork.
“We’ve got to start somewhere. We’ve got to start with the report,” said Flattery.
Another good defense tactic is to obtain an “identity theft file.” It puts an alert on your name so that any time police run your name, they also have to ask for a password. If the person stealing that identity doesn’t have that password, police know they’re dealing with an imposter. This identity theft file is from Everett police department in Washington, but you can print it out and ask your local police department if they have a similar program. The FBI has more information here.