Bamboozled September 15th, 2016: Why does Medicare still flaunt your Social Security number?

Data hacks. Stolen laptops. Crooked employees of financial institutions.

These are all ways we’ve heard of Social Security numbers being swiped when they were supposedly safe.

But Bamboozled readers know that there’s a much easier way for a crook to get your Social Security number: from your Medicare card.

Readers reminded us of this danger earlier this month after reading about a couple who were faced with collections calls for a $1,400 debt with Comcast.

The debt wasn’t theirs, and it turned out a con artist had opened an account in the husband’s name, using the husband’s Social Security number.

The column really touched Bamboozled readers, and many wrote to share their frustration with trying to keep their Social Security number private.

The biggest complaints came from senior citizens like Milt Horowitz.

He noted the couple profiled in the story were seniors, and therefore, their Social Security numbers are right smack on the front of their Medicare cards.

“This number is easily hacked from any medical supplier’s information database, many of which have been hacked already,” Horowitz said.

It could be hacked from a pharmacy database, too. Or found on a lost government laptop.

Or if a Medicare recipient loses a wallet, the bad guys would have the number.

“If I had a person’s SSN and their name, I could find out an amazing amount of information about that person, much of it for free… including property tax records, addresses, phone numbers, etc.,” Horowitz said.

He noted that many health insurance companies have moved away from using a Social Security number as identification to protect the privacy of their customers.

Why can’t the U.S. government do the same?

 

Learn how the Senior Medicare Patrol can stop scams and ensure your Medicare bills are accurate.

Reader Catherine Politi had the same question.

“I’m new to Medicare and I wonder why Social Security numbers are still being used for that system,” she said. “I wonder if the Medicare number led to this gentleman’s problem.”

We’ll never know exactly how the cable thief got the customer’s Social Security number, but a Medicare card is certainly a possible source.

It’s too late for many people who have had their Social Security number on their Medicare card for years, but we can gladly report we’re getting closer to an end on that absurd privacy snafu.

We spoke to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), which said the practice is coming to an end.

“By April 2019 all people with Medicare benefits will have received their new cards with a new Medicare Identification number,” said spokesman Tony Salters.

We asked if the rollout will start in April 2019 or before, and if everyone will receive the new cards at one time or if it would be on a staggered basis.

That’s to be determined, Salters said.

April 2019 is an awfully long time away, but it’s better than nothing, we guess.

When you should and shouldn’t give out your Social Security number

Before you hand over your Social Security number, make sure the requester has a good reason for needing it.

Salters said Medicare beneficiaries will get lots of notice and instruction about the new cards.

“CMS will conduct extensive outreach to people with Medicare to inform them that they’ll be receiving a new card, instruct them on when and how the new card should be used, and provide information on how to dispose of their old card,” he said.

The change is being made to meet the requirements and timeline of the Social Security Number Removal Initiative (SSNRI), which is part of MACRA, the Medicare Access & CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015.

In short, it requires Social Security numbers be removed from all Medicare cards.

You can stay updated on the timeline here.

Salters also pointed to a Medicare web page, which offers what he called a short but comprehensive list of what people with Medicare can do to protect themselves and their health care coverage.

We want to remind you that Medicare fraud goes far beyond having your Social Security number stolen. It’s also having wrong benefits billed to Medicare on behalf of mistaken or scammy providers, which is why it’s essential to make sure you closely monitor your benefits statements.

If you’re ever unsure about a Medicare bill, contact The Senior Medicare Patrol, or SMP, which is a volunteer group of seniors working to fight Medicare fraud.

You can learn more about SMP online or by calling (877) SMP-4359.

Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.

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