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Bill would remove SSN from Medicare cards
One of the fastest-growing crimes in America is identity theft, a crime that often leaves its victims feeling vulnerable and without a clear answer on how to return their lives to normal.
In 2012, more than one in 20 adults had their identities stolen, according to a study conducted by Javelin Strategy & Research. These crimes resulted in an estimated $21 million in damage as well as considerable effort on the part of the victims to clear their credit history and regain their identity.
Lynne Vieraitis, a criminology professor at the University of Texas at Dallas who has written extensively on the subject, said gaining access to Social Security numbers is often the first step in committing identity theft. Once they have a stolen number, the possibilities are nearly endless, she said.
"Having someone's Social Security number makes it easier to commit a variety of identity thefts and related frauds such as credit card fraud, insurance fraud, bank fraud and mortgage fraud," she said via email. "When you apply for utilities, store credit, credit cards or open a checking account, you [must] provide the agency or business with your Social Security number."
In the last decade many safeguards have been put in place to protect Social Security numbers. Colleges and universities have begun using student ID numbers rather than Social Security numbers to identify students, and experts have advised people to no longer carry their Social Security cards with them. Still, for reasons that are unknown to at least one U.S. congressman, millions of elderly Americans are putting themselves at risk of identity theft every day simply by carrying their Medicare cards.
"You are told not to carry your Social Security card, but you are told to carry your Medicare card, which has your Social Security number on it," said Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Plano). "You are kind of robbing Peter to pay Paul if you will, so I think we need to get that number off of there."
To do just this, Johnson has filed H.R. 781, a proposed law that would remove Social Security numbers from Medicare cards. The bill was also filed during the 2011-2012 legislative session, but was not passed because of partisan gridlock on other issues, Johnson said. This session should be different, he said, since the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which previously opposed removing the numbers, has come around to the idea.
"I don't think there is a lot of opposition," Johnson said. "Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin) signed on with me. The problem is you get over to the United States Senate, where all good bills go to die. We simply ran out of time last year to get it done, so I think we have a good chance of getting it across the line this year unless we get embroiled in something else."
During research for her 2012 book "Identity Thieves: Motives and Methods," which she co-authored with Heith Copes, Vieraitis interviewed many convicted identity thieves. Through that process she discovered that used Social Security information, which was often gained via robberies or burglaries, was use to receive medical benefits, among other things.
"Anyone with access to someone's information, including Medicaid/Medicare cards, could use that information to commit identity theft and fraud," she said. "Medical insurance companies have removed customers' Social Security numbers from insurance cards. Is there a reason the government cannot do the same with Medicare cards?"
Johnson's bill has been introduced, but has not yet been passed out of committee and voted on by the House of Representatives. If that happens, it must be approved the Senate before being sent to the president.