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Identity Theft in Practice: Who's Watching Your Back?


When an office manager says, "Don't worry, I'll take care of everything," it's all too easy to punt the ball away and never look back. It's the path of least resistance for you...as well as those that want to take from you.

We've become so highly interdependent in our practices that we could not be as effective as we are in any area of our lives on our own. This interdependence, however, also makes us vulnerable to malfeasance, especially in our financial affairs, both personal and professional.

On the personal side of the ledger, identity theft has become a major problem and is growing even as we speak. And for every security innovation that arises, it is only a matter of time until the bad guys find a way to neutralize it.

Whether or not you have had the questionable privilege of having some aspect of your identity fall to unauthorized access, here is a brief check list that I found in my files that may make you both less anxious and more prepared.

The next time you order checks, put your initials on them

By doing this instead of using your full name, a potential thief will not know how you sign your name...but the bank will.

Don't sign the back of a new credit card

Instead write "Photo ID required."

If you write a check to pay a credit card bill, only use the last 4 numbers of the credit card

Don't worry - the company will know who you are, but it's one less place a miscreant can get your full number.

Put your work phone number and work address on your checks instead of the home equivalents

Neither your social security number nor your driver's license number should be there, either. I know it could be a convenience for you to have them there, but it's also a convenience for the wrong hands.

Put everything in your wallet on the photocopy machine

Copy both sides (your passport too) and keep everything in a secure place. Take a separate copy when you travel. If you just plain lose any of these, it will make your life much easier to have a copy, especially if there are the 800 numbers to call to report a loss or theft.

If you do have a theft, report it to the police immediately

Last year I had the misfortune to have a credit card number misappropriated while traveling. But through working with the credit card company and the police, they actually found the guy and successfully prosecuted him.

It's amazing when the system works.

Incidentally, I had (and you should always have) a second credit card handy to bail you out just in case the first notice of trouble is that the affected card is frozen, unusable lest you end up being either embarrassed at a local cashier's denial or worse, being stranded in some distant place.

Lastly, if you are the victim of identity theft, call the three national credit reporting companies

Place a fraud alert and preserve your credit standing with Equifax (800-525-6285), Experian (888-397-3742), and Trans Union (800-680-7289). Dial 800-269-0271 for the Social Security fraud line.

On the professional side, docs have been historically vulnerable to embezzlement by their staff. Why? Don't I always say that we do not get any training in running a business? So we're uncomfortable with it, busy in our medical concerns. Then when an experienced office manager gets hired and says, "Don't worry, I'll take care of everything," we're all too happy to punt the ball away. Some of us don't even retain the responsibility to write checks!

A really good office manager and front office staff can make your life much better; more confidence, more income, and even better patient care - but we do need a reality check. If you have never done so, hire an expert to design simple medical office systems that provide checks and balances. At least make it difficult for one person acting alone to rip you off. It happens more than you think, given the average doc's loose controls.

And of course, other things will be included in such an audit such as a cross-training protocol so that in the event of illness, vacation, and personnel change, your office can continue to function without a hitch. A simple check list can ensure that you know the right questions to ask, when to ask them, and what a usable benchmark for each response is. Also, what red flags to watch out for.

Likewise, the compulsive micromanagers out there will also be helped by taking these steps. You can finally relax a bit, having filled gaps in which you felt compelled to involve yourself, allowing you to have more time for your patients.

Whether you choose to have a follow-up, on-going relationship with a consultant, in an oversight capacity or otherwise, is up to you. It can be expensive, but very helpful, and may save you more than you are spending on them. Historically, my only caveat is that once they get things up and running really well, they begin to take you for granted, but still collect their fee. Just be aware.

You can't control when or why an errant employee might want to steal from your practice, but you sure can control how easy or difficult it might be to find an opportunity. And whether or not you have been burned by identity theft. we all need to be careful.

Many of you have your backs covered by a well-designed set of financial controls and safeguards and have taken steps to prevent and deal with identity theft.

For the rest, isn't it nice to know that Physician's Money Digest has your back?

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Victor J. Dzau, MD, gives expert advice
Victor J. Dzau, MD, gives expert advice