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Ask Ms. Medicare

Does Your Medicare Card Expose You to Identity Theft?

How to protect yourself

Q. Why is the ID number on my Medicare card the same as my Social Security number? I need to carry the card in my wallet, so what can I do to prevent identify theft?

A. People new to Medicare are often shocked to learn that the ID number on their Medicare card is identical to their Social Security number (SSN). After all, we're constantly warned not to carry our SSNs around with us. If our cards are lost or lifted, a criminal can use those numbers to get other personal information about us and commit identity theft — an especially vicious form of fraud that snared more than 11.6 million victims last year.

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Medicare Identity Theft - Man holds up mask of another man's face to his own

Don't fall victim to identity theft. Keep your Medicare card in a safe place. — Photo by Ann E. Cutting/Getty Images

But the Medicare ID is more than an identifier — it's proof of insurance. Beneficiaries need to show their Medicare card at the doctor's office and the hospital in order to have Medicare pay for treatment.

Over the years, many consumer advocates, including AARP, have called for a new form of Medicare identification. Members of Congress have written legislation to establish a different system, such as Medicare smart cards. Two government agencies have urged change: the Social Security Administration and the Federal Trade Commission. Even a presidential commission (PDF) debated the issue in 2007.

Yet so far nothing has been done.

The reason is that it would cost at least $800 million and take five years to issue new numbers and change the cards currently used by more than 47 million people with Medicare, Medicare officials testified at a House committee hearing on Aug.1. Also, doctors and other health care providers across the nation would have to update their records.

Other government health systems — such as those run by Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense — have already begun using ID numbers that are different from SSNs, or they are in the process of changing. But no one knows whether Medicare will follow suit.

In the meantime, here's what you can do to protect yourself, according to the Privacy Rights Clearing House, a national consumer resource on identity theft:

Photocopy your Medicare card and cut it down to wallet size. Then remove or cut out the last four digits of the SSN and carry the remaining photocopy with you rather than the actual card. But you'll need your original Medicare card with you the first time you visit a health care provider, who will likely want to make a photocopy of it for their files

Note: You'll notice that your Medicare ID has one or two additional letters or numbers following the digits of the SSN. These identify what kind of beneficiary you are, according to the Social Security Administration. For example, the letter T mainly indicates that you are entitled to Medicare, but are not yet filed for Social Security retirement benefits; whereas W1 indicates that you are a widower who is eligible for Medicare through disability. For the purposes of your photocopy, it doesn't matter whether you delete these final letters (or letter-number combinations) or leave them in.

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Inspector General Daniel Levinson of the HHS shares with us the various tools and strategies that federal agencies are using to fight Medicare fraud. Watch

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