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New Medicare ID cards should greatly reduce exposure to identity theft, but a stolen card could still leave you vulnerable to fraud. Here are some guidelines on how to protect yourself in case yours turns up missing.
New Cards Solve an Old Problem
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has been issuing new Medicare ID cards over the past year to address a serious security issue that has plagued Medicare recipients for decades: Social Security number theft. The new cards no longer use Social Security numbers (SSNs) as their claim numbers, and instead use Medicare-specific claim numbers.
The updated cards began arriving in mailboxes in April 2018, and all Medicare recipients should have received their new cards by now, according to Medicare.gov. (If you haven't received yours, call 1-800-MEDICARE (633-4227) to request one.)
The new cards will end decades of security exposure for Medicare members: While most of us know to keep Social Security cards secure (in a lockbox or safety deposit box, for example), many Medicare users are obligated to show their cards when they visit a doctor, medical facility or pharmacy. The need to have Medicare cards out and about created vulnerability to theft—of both the cards themselves and the SSNs they bore.
If you received your new Medicare card, you should have followed the instructions that came with it, which included destroying the old card with your SSN on it. If you haven't yet destroyed your old card, use an office shredder to destroy it; otherwise, cut it up with scissors in a way that mutilates the numbers on the card.
What to Do If Your Card Is Lost or Destroyed
If your Medicare card is destroyed in a way that leaves no chance of discovery by thieves—your wallet sinks to the bottom of a lake, or the card is lost in a fire, for instance—then your biggest problem is getting a new card. The good news is unlike with the old cards, if you lose your new Medicare ID card, you can print a new card on your home printer, just as you can with many auto insurance cards.
To do so, you'll need to sign up for a free online account at Medicare.gov—something you should have done as soon as you received your new Medicare card. This not only provides access to printable replacement cards, but it also lets you monitor the use of your card so you can see if anyone is using your account without permission.
You can still get replacement cards and other Medicare assistance by phone, but checking your online account regularly is a great way to guard against suspicious activity.
If You Think Your Card Was Stolen
Checking for suspicious activity is more than a good idea if your Medicare card is stolen—it's essential, particularly if thieves take an old-style card, which contains your Social Security number. One of those cards can be used to gain access to your credit history, and a criminal can use it to take out bogus loans and credit card accounts under your name.
In fact, if your old-style Medicare card is stolen, you should take the same steps you'd take if your Social Security card were stolen (or if your SSN is otherwise compromised, via theft of your mail, tax returns or other documents that contain your SSN). These include:
- Reporting the theft to appropriate authorities.
- Having a security freeze placed on your credit files at the three national credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion).
- Monitoring credit activity associated with your SSN (or using a service that does so automatically) to detect and thwart unauthorized credit applications or creation of new accounts.
Of course, in addition to taking these steps to protect your credit, you'll also need to request a new Medicare card if you haven't received it yet, via the steps described at the Medicare website.
If your new-style Medicare card is stolen, or lost under circumstances under which a criminal might discover it, the threat to your overall credit is less severe than the loss of your SSN, but you should still exercise caution.
Also, if your Medicare card has been lost or stolen, watch out for Medicare fraud:
- Check for services you did not receive in the quarterly Medicare Summary Notice (MSN) you receive by mail or, better yet, sign up for monthly notices via email (eMSN) and check each message carefully. Report any irregularities to the U.S. Inspector General's fraud hotline at 800-HHS-TIPS (800-447-8477).
- If you suspect your Medicare card has been misused, it's also a good idea to contact the Senior Medicare Patrol (SMP) for your state. A great all-around resource for Medicare questions and concerns, your SMP can help you determine which state and local authorities to contact about potential Medicare fraud.
Avoiding the Problem
A good way to avoid the possibility of Medicare card theft or loss is to avoid carrying it around unless necessary.
- You'll generally need to show your ID card (and perhaps a photo ID as well) the first time you visit a new doctor, clinic, hospital or other health care provider. The office will likely make a copy of the card to keep on record and may not require you to present it again on future visits, in which case you can leave the card safely at home.
There is now an important exception to the practice, however: Care providers know Medicare has issued new cards, and if they have an old-style card on file, they'll ask for your new card so they can update their files. If you haven't received it yet, that won't be a problem, but once you get it, you should bring the new card to each of your provider's next appointment.
- If you get health or drug benefits through a Medicare Advantage Plan, such as a health maintenance organization (HMO), preferred provider organization (PPO) or prescription drug plan (PDP), the plan may issue its own ID card, which you'll need to present when obtaining services. If you're using one of those cards, you don't need to present your Medicare card, and you can leave it at home when you head to appointments or pick up prescriptions. (If your Medicare Advantage Plan card is lost or stolen, you'll need to get a replacement from the plan provider, not Medicare itself.)
- If you require emergency treatment, you may be required to present your Medicare ID within a short time after being discharged, but you won't be denied care if you don't have your card with you. If you've received your new Medicare card, providers may be able to locate your ID number online, without requiring you to present the physical card.
Even though your new Medicare claim number is less susceptible to identity theft than your SSN, you should handle the new number with the same level of caution you'd give your SSN or a bank account number:
- Don't write your claim number down in places thieves could easily spot it.
- Don't give your claim number out over the phone unless you're sure you're speaking with a trusted health care provider (Medicare will never call you and ask you to confirm your claim number).
- If you receive an email requesting your personal information, no matter how official it may look, don't respond with your claim number or other personal information until you confirm by phone that the message is legitimate. Emails seeking personal data are often examples of phishing scams.
Medicare is taking steps in the right direction to help reduce exposure to identity theft. Combined with some caution and vigilance on your part, you can safeguard your claim number and avoid inconvenience and abuse.