Despite the fact a government laptop was stolen last month containing the confidential medical records of 2,500 participants in a study conducted by the National Institute of Health, the NIH didn’t alert potentially affected patients until last Thursday. The laptop, which was stolen from the trunk of an employee’s car, stored seven years of clinical trial data on its hard drive in an unencrypted form.
“Electronic information travels in seconds and minutes, not days and weeks. The NIH should take as much care in protecting its patients' personally identifiable information as it does when handling blood samples,” Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn, told the Associated Press. The NIH said it is now working to encrypt all sensitive information. “We deeply regret that this incident may cause those who have participated in one of our studies to feel that we have violated that trust,” Dr. Elizabeth Nabel, head of NIH's National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, said in a statement.
But medical identity theft doesn’t only happen when a government organization makes a major gaffe. The Federal Trade Commission estimates there are 250,000 medical identity theft cases each year, amounting to a $51 billion dollar loss annually, according to National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association estimates. Here’s MainStreet’s guide to protecting yourself against this kind of fraud, because unlike someone stealing your credit card, the consequences of medical identity theft can be fatal.