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Medicare cards pose identity theft risk for seniors

CU urges feds to stop using Social Security numbers on Medicare cards.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Michael McCauley


Consumers Union Urges Medicare Agency to End Practice

The federal government is putting senior citizens at risk for identity theft by printing Social Security numbers on Medicare cards, Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports, said today. The consumer advocacy organization has called on the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) to stop using Social Security numbers as the basis for health insurance claim numbers listed on Medicare cards and on mailings to beneficiaries. The agency has indicated that it has no immediate plans of doing so.

“Having your Social Security number on your Medicare card puts you at a higher risk for identity theft,” said Shelley Curran, Policy Analyst for Consumers Union’s Financial Privacy Now campaign. “Lost or stolen Medicare cards with personally identifiable information on them, like Social Security numbers, can be used by criminals to steal someone’s identity and commit fraud.”

By visiting the web site www.FinancialPrivacyNow.org consumers can send a free email to the Department of Health and Human Services and Members of Congress to urge policymakers to remove Social Security numbers from Medicare cards and mailings.

In June 2004, Consumers Union sent a letter to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services at HHS urging the agency to stop using Social Security Numbers on their cards and mailings to beneficiaries. In September, the agency responded by indicating that the health insurance claim number on Medicare cards is a variation of the recipient’s Social Security number, not the actual number. In certain circumstances, the agency noted, the health insurance claim number may be based on the Social Security Number of a spouse or parent. Further investigation by Consumers Union, however, has determined that the health insurance claim number is most often the beneficiary’s Social Security number preceded or followed by a single letter of the alphabet.

“There is no excuse for leaving Medicare beneficiaries vulnerable to identity theft with a thinly disguised Social Security number on their membership card,” said Curran.

Kim Brandt, Acting Director of Program Integrity for CMS, informed Consumers Union that the agency had considered removing Social Security numbers from benefit cards, but that it had no definite plans or timeline for doing so. Ms. Brandt recommended that consumers insured by Medicare leave their membership cards at home unless they plan on traveling. This advice, however, contradicts the message printed on the back of all Medicare cards which instructs beneficiaries to carry their card with them when they are away from home.

The Federal Trade Commission has listed identity theft as its top consumer complaint, affecting almost 10 million Americans last year. Many of these cases of identity theft are a result of lost or stolen wallets or mail. Identity thieves use the information on ID cards and in mail to steal identities, often ruining the good names and credit of victims.

Many commercial insurance companies have taken steps to remove Social Security numbers from their membership cards, and some of the largest, like Kaiser Permanente, have removed Social Security numbers from all of their customers’ cards. Private companies are prohibited from displaying Social Security numbers on cards in Arizona, California, Georgia, Texas, and Utah. Medicare could continue to use Social Security numbers internally and assign consumers unique numbers that would appear on Medicare cards.

“Consumers should be able to carry their Medicare cards in their wallets without putting themselves at greater risk for identity theft,” said Curran. “The federal government should follow the lead of private health insurers by discontinuing the use of Social Security numbers on membership cards and mail.”

For more information on Consumers Union’s effort to remove Social Security numbers from Medicare cards and mailings, go to: www.FinancialPrivacyNow.org. For a copy of Consumers Union’s letter to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services at HHS, click here. For a copy of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services response to Consumers Union’s letter, click here.