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June 2008

Eliminating Most Catalog Mailings

Your mailbox may be overflowing with catalogs and offers for credit cards and insurance plans. In an earlier column, I provided a few solutions to cut down some of the unwanted mail (see http://www.wecnmagazine.com/consumer/2008/ccpfeb08.html). There is an additional resource. The Ecology Center of Berkeley, California, runs a website at www.catalogchoice.org that allows you to opt out of receiving more than 1,000 catalogs. You will be asked to provide your name and address as well as select the catalogs you no longer want to receive. The site’s sponsor then generates for you the opt-out forms that it sends to the catalog companies.

Catalogchoice.org notes it may take up to 10 weeks for your request to take effect. It also may ask you if you want to opt out of other mailings such as special offers or sweepstakes and will help you do so. The site’s sponsor promises it will not share your information with anyone. 

Security of Your Medical Records

A February report of the Federal Trade Commission says identity-theft complaints rose in 2007, establishing identity theft yet again as the top consumer complaint received by the agency. One key potential problem area is the security of hospital and clinic medical records. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the theft of an unencrypted laptop from an employee of the National Institutes of Health; the accidental posting of personal data on the web by WellCare Health Plans, Inc. and WellPoint, Inc.; and the May arrest of a fired employee at New York-Presbyterian Hospital for allegedly selling at least 2,000 patient identification records.

Hospitals present a substantial risk for identity theft because there are so many employees—doctors, nurses, accounting staff, and lab technicians—who have access to some or all of your personal information. Use of electronic medical records may increase potential problems because of a thief’s ability to access a larger amount of medical records at one time.

What can you do to avoid medical identity theft? The World Privacy Forum, a non-profit corporation funded in part by the California Consumer Protection Foundation, provides the following advice at www.worldprivacyforum.org to help you protect your medical records.

First, closely monitor any “explanation of benefits” sent by a public or private health insurer to see if you are being charged for services or medical equipment you didn’t receive or for office visits you did not make.

Second, ask your insurer for a listing of benefits each year to see if there are payments you do not recognize. Federal law gives you the right to a copy of your records from every health insurer and nearly every health care provider.

Third, ask your health care provider for a copy of your medical file each year, particularly if your insurer has paid for any medical procedures you did not receive. For help making your request, go to www.patientprivacyrights.org. Please note your health care provider may charge you for a copy of the file. If the charge is high, you may want to limit your request to an inspection only.

Fourth, file a police report if you find a problem. Your report will be important to prove to insurers and health care providers you are a victim of identity theft. As a result, you would not be responsible for any fraudulent charges.

Fifth, correct your medical records if a problem is found. Once again, www.worldprivacyforum.org provides helpful advice on how to amend your medical records.

Have a safe and enjoyable summer. 

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