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Stolen Identity: 2.3 Million Americans Suffer Medical ID Theft

Medical identity theft is one of the most costly, confusing and potentially dangerous types of fraud -- and a new study shows it's on a sharp rise.

Medical ID theft soared 22 percent in 2014, The Ponemon Institute said in its fifth annual survey published Monday. Ponemon estimates more than 2.3 million adult Americans or close family members became victims during or before 2014.

Once someone becomes a victim, it's extremely difficult to untangle the fraudulent bills and ruined medical records. Criminals can commit medical ID theft by using victims' personal information -- like names, birth dates, Social Security Numbers or the ID numbers found on insurance cards -- at medical providers' offices to receive services and prescriptions.

They may visit multiple hospitals, emergency rooms and pharmacies to receive care and prescriptions, racking up charges. Perhaps worse: Any medical care a criminal receives while using a victim's ID gets added to the victim's health record -- and may go unnoticed for months or even years.

Ponemon's study found the average victim didn't find out about the ID theft until three months after it happened, and 30 percent of victims didn't know when the crime occurred. And because privacy laws protect the release of health information, fixing the problem is difficult: Victims often have to be a part of the investigation, and it can be tough for victims to prove they're not the ones who actually received treatment.

A paltry 10 percent of the Ponemon respondents said they eventually came to a "completely satisfactory" resolution of the issue. Some victims, desperate to resolve the situation, end up paying the fraudulent bills: About 65 percent of the study's respondents said they had to spend money as a result of the theft, and the average cost was a whopping $13,453.

The study compiled data from last year, so it doesn't include the potential fallout from the hack of major health insurer Anthem. That attack hit as many as 80 million records, Anthem said when the company disclosed the hack earlier this month.

80 million exposed in Anthem cyberattack 1:14

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-- Julianne Pepitone