A new Medicare card is coming, one that will no longer display a cardholder’s Social Security number, or SSN.
To protect seniors from identity theft, President Obama recently signed a bill that requires the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to issue new Medicare cards that don’t display, code, or embed SSNs.
Medicare advises senior citizens to carry their cards at all times, but doing so makes them more vulnerable to identity theft. If a wallet or purse is lost or stolen, identity thieves have access to an SSN.
For more than a decade, we and other Federal agencies have recommended taking SSNs off of Medicare cards. However, the amount of money and effort this would take has prevented it—so the new law includes funding and instructions for HHS to consult with the Social Security Administration to "establish cost‑effective procedures” to modernize Medicare cards.
The bill gives HHS four years to issue modernized cards to new beneficiaries, and four more years to issue the new cards to existing beneficiaries.
U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson, Chairman of the House Ways and Means’ Subcommittee on Social Security, has long advocated removing SSNs from Medicare cards. Johnson recently said to the New York Times, “The Social Security number is the key to identity theft, and thieves are having a field day with seniors’ Medicare cards.”
With more than 4,500 seniors enrolling in Medicare every day, we have repeatedly recommended removing the SSN from Medicare cards.
- In 2006, we recommended that Social Security encourage HHS to modernize the Medicare card and aide in the development of an alternative identifier that met both agencies’ needs.
- In 2008, we reported that despite the increasing threat of identity theft, Medicare continued to issue cards that displayed SSNs and unnecessarily placed millions of individuals at risk for identity theft.
- Also in 2008, the Inspector General called for immediate action to remove SSNs from Medicare cards—as the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs began carrying out elaborate plans to remove SSNs from their identification cards.
With a stolen SSN, identity thieves can commit any number of financial crimes in the victim’s name, or they can steal money from the victim. If the victim is a senior citizen, the thief could even target the victim’s Social Security benefits.
Thieves might attempt to change the victim’s Social Security direct deposit information, redirecting benefits to other accounts. If they’ve also obtained an individual’s personal information, they may also try to establish a fraudulent my Social Security account.
We are pleased to see the President sign this bill; we believe it will be a big step forward in protecting senior citizens from fraud. However, as mentioned, it will take time, planning, and effort for HHS to develop an identifier to replace the SSN and then issue the new Medicare cards.
As a reminder, we strongly encourage you to verify the legitimacy of text messages, emails, or phone calls by people who say they are from Social Security. If you have questions about any communication—email, letter, text or phone call—that claims to be from the SSA, please report it online at https://oig.ssa.gov/report.