Your Medicare card: Go ahead, leave home without it

What’s in seniors’ wallets? Most likely, a Medicare caMedicare-card1rd that puts them at risk of scams and fraud.

In an era of rising worry about financial scams and frauds targeting the elderly, we still have this peculiar anachronism: Social Security numbers are printed on every Medicare card – and the back of the card instructs seniors to carry it with them at all times. That puts seniors at heightened risk of identity theft should the cards fall into the wrong hands, and fuels fraudulent Medicare benefit claims.

Update: legislation was enacted in April 2015 requiring that Social Security numbers not be displayed on Medicare cards. Medicare will have up to four years to start issuing replacement cards.

Medicare’s identification number is called the Health Insurance Claim Number (HICN), and it’s the same as your Social Security number. The federal government has recognized the risk for many years, and several bills have been introduced in Congress to compel removal of the numbers, but nothing much has happened.

The problem extends well beyond Medicare cards. For example, the Medicare Summary Notice that is mailed to beneficiaries quarterly also displays the full HICN; more than 13,000 summary notices were mailed to the wrong addresses in 2010 and 2011 due to a printing error by a government contractor, according to the Office of Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Learn more in my column today at Reuters Money.

Consumer experts advise consumers to follow these steps to help guard their HICNs:

  • Don’t carry the card. AARP suggests that beneficiaries ignore, for now, Medicare’s guidance to carry their cards at all times. It’s unnecessary in most cases, it says.
  • Give the number in advance. If you make an appointment with a new healthcare provider, provide your HICN over the phone.
  • Review your Medicare summary. Your quarterly summary notice lists all procedures and services you have received under Part A (hospitalization) and outpatient services (Part B). If you see something that isn’t familiar, it could be a sign your identity has been breached. AARP offers an online guide to decoding summary notices.