Medicare cards still put Social Security numbers at risk

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Medicare has not found a good solution to removing Social Security Numbers on beneficiaries’ cards, a government watchdog warned, leaving open the possibility that stolen cards could easily lead to stolen identities.

“The visual display of the SSN introduces risks to the security of beneficiaries’ personal information, as the number may, among other things, be obtained and used by criminals to conduct identity theft,” said the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ watchdog arm.


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The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which oversees the medical benefits programs, have studied a number of alternatives, including using a Medicare-specific ID number or just having the last four digits of the SSN on the card.

“While CMS has spent time and resources over the past seven years studying approaches that could be taken toward removing the SSN from Medicare beneficiaries’ cards, the agency has not actively established and pursued a goal to identify an IT solution for doing so,” the GAO said.

CMS is currently upgrading its IT infrastructure, and investigators said the agency should use the opportunity to include improvements that would make it easier to remove SSN numbers from cards.

Officials at CMS said they are looking for ways to remove the numbers, but cannot make the decision unilaterally and must work with other agencies like the Social Security Administration. In addition, officials say, replacing the cards will likely cost millions of dollars.

Identity theft has risen over the past few years according to data from the Federal Trade Commission, and the most common kind is fraudulently using someone else’s government benefits.

Other departments have taken measures to protect personal information. In 2011, the Pentagon finished replacing nearly 10 million military ID cards, translating the SSN into a bar code that made it more difficult to read. In 2004, the Veterans Affairs Department completed a similar program to replace 8 million cards.

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