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DOES MEDICARE'S USE OF SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBERS ENABLE IDENTITY THEFT?




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By Joel A. Harrison, PhD, MPH

 
February 14, 2012 (San Diego’s East County)--Identity theft, a growing problem, is regularly in the news. We are warned to keep our Social Security numbers safe, to not carry our SSN cards with us.  But recently, I joined the ranks of Medicare recipients and, to my surprise, found that my Medicare number is my SSN number--and we are instructed to carry it with us at all times.

 

I’ve done everything possible to minimize my exposure. I purchased a cross-cutter, better than a shredder, and use it for all papers with personal information. I purchased a sturdy lock mailbox. I keep no passwords or personal details on my computer, keep my firewall and virus programs up-to-date, and obtained a second credit card with a low maximum for online purchases. I never give out information on the phone and I placed a security freeze on all three credit reporting agencies. (Most precautions I have taken were based on recommendations of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse at http://www.privacyrights.org/ , a superb national organization locally based in San Diego.)

 
Recently, as a long-time Kaiser member, I opted to join Kaiser’s Senior Advantage.  I can now  carry Kaiser’s member card and place my Medicare card in my Safe Deposit Box alongside my SSN card.  To avoid the hassle and risk of lost mail, I also opted to have my Medicare Part B electronically drawn from my checking account. I ordered the form from Medicare, filled it out, including my SSN, birthdate, name, and address-- everything necessary for Identity Theft-- and noticed if held up to the light that one could read the contents. I placed it in a security envelope, drove to the nearest post office, and sent it certified mail to ensure it got to its destination.
 
After the above, I felt that I had done everything necessary to minimize exposure to Identity Theft when I received a “Notice of Medicare Premium Payment Due” with “This is not a Bill” in the upper right corner. And, yep, in two places was my Social Security Number (one at the top and one on the tear off section for those paying by mail).
 
Every month like clockwork I receive this notice. Given there are over 30 million recipients of Medicare in the U.S., this means that every year over 360 million such notices are mailed. And for those who choose to pay by mail, the number increases substantially. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the odds that some will get in the wrong hands. Not yet a recipient of Social Security, I imagine once I opt to start receiving my SSN checks, I will begin receiving additional mailings with my SSN number on them.
 
 I now feel helpless in the face of our own government increasing my risks. I phoned Senator Boxer and Feinstein’s offices, the offices of Congresswoman Susan Davis and Congressman Bob Filner and, hopefully, one or more of them will do something?   
 
I made the following suggestions:
 
  1. All mailings from Medicare and SSN should contain only the last four digits of the Social Security number. When I contact various companies that I have accounts with, this is all they ask for. This is something so simple, so easy to arrange, that it seems incredible they haven’t thought of it already. Note. Any competent database program can link the name, address, and last four digits for any incoming payment statements.
  2. Any forms that we must fill out that require the complete SSN number should have security return envelopes. I buy boxes of 100, only a few cents more per box than regular envelopes. The government purchases 100s of millions, so I’m sure they can negotiate a minimal increase in costs.
  3. Finally, DEVELOP A SEPARATE NUMBER IDENTIFICATION SYSTEM FOR MEDICARE. With modern computer databases, Medicare’s computers can easily link any separate Medicare number to the Social Security number.
 
I understand that there are major problems that our representatives are dealing with; but putting over 30 million Americans at risk for identity theft isn’t a trivial matter and my suggestions, especially the first one, should require only minimal effort, a simple few lines of programming.
 
If you agree with me that the wide-spread use of our Social Security numbers in Medicare poses an unacceptable and easily corrected risk, I urge you to contact your member of Congress, Senator Boxer and Feinstein’s offices, and any and all local newspapers and magazines.
 
Joel A. Harrison, PhD, MPH, a native San Diegan, is a semi-retired epidemiologist.  He has worked in the areas of preventive medicine, infectious diseases, medical outcomes research, and evidence-based clinical practice guidelines. He is currently active in supporting the adoption of a single-payer health care system in the U.S. For more information on single-payer go to Physicians for a National Health Program’s website at www.pnhp.org