A U.S. hospital network said this week that Chinese hackers stole Social Security numbers, addresses, names, birth dates and phone numbers for about 4.5 million patients.
Community Health Systems (CYH) , the hospital network whose data was breached, runs 206 hospitals across 29 states and says its medical data is safe. The suspected hackers have “typically sought valuable intellectual property, such as medical device and equipment development data,” according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing, though in this case they copied patient information in April and June.
Is your hospital part of the network? See their location map here.
When hackers get credit or debit card numbers, customers who are notified can cancel those cards and alert their banks to fraudulent transactions, and are often absolved of liability for unauthorized purchases. And when passwords are pilfered from databases, the answer is sometimes simpler: Change them. Security experts are working to make that even easier, hoping to kill off the password and replace it with biometric scans as soon as next year.
But the Social Security number is a permanent nine-digit password to your life. We depend on them for loans, taxes, employment records and financial transactions. “You’re now in for a lifetime of having to look over your shoulder,” says Adam Levin, founder of the personal finance website Credit.com and founder of Identity Theft 911, an education and breach response company.
What to do if your Social Security number was stolen:
Accept or enroll in the identity-theft protection services the hospital network is offering — but be aware of its limitations. The company wrote in government filings that it will offer affected patients these services. Still, identity theft protection isn’t a forcefield. It’s usually a reactive product that can tell you if someone misuses your identity, which you can also figure out through other means. Does the service offer help with resolution if you need to clean up the mess after a fraud?
Request a 90-day fraud alert. Ask one of the three major credit bureaus — Experian (EXPGY) , Equifax (EFX) or TransUnion — to place this note on your account so creditors know to take additional steps to verify that any attempts to open new accounts, increase credit limits or obtain new cards, for example, are coming from the real you. One of the bureaus will automatically notify the others of your request, so there’s no need to individually ask all three.
Put a security freeze on your account. This locks your information and forbids the credit bureaus from giving out your information without permission. Yes, this could get annoying, but “I would rather face cumbersome than a disaster,” Levin says.
Contact the Social Security Administration. The agency should know of the theft regardless of whether you are collecting benefits right now. In cases of synthetic identity theft, criminals associate a victim’s Social Security number with a new name to create a fake persona. Also be sure to check whether your Social Security benefits line up with the dollar amount you expect. A fraudster who cannot be legally employed could be using your identification number to find a job.
If you start getting strange calls from debt collectors, don’t dismiss them. A crook could be responsible for the debts incurred using your Social Security number – especially medical debts. Hackers stole information from a hospital, so they know they can use it at a medical facility, Levin says.
Priya Anand is MarketWatch's consumer fraud reporter. She is based in New York. You can follow Priya on Twitter @PriyasIdeas.
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