Identity theft is a truly horrible crime. Without anyone laying a hand on you, it can seem like your entire life is on the line. Someone is “out there,” using your identity, pretending to be you, smearing your good name and your good credit. According to the Identity Theft Resource Center’s Aftermath report, identity theft is so hurtful to victims that many of them reported feelings of paranoia and mistrust, as well as more serious emotional and even physical responses.

But there’s one form of identity theft that can actually have life-or-death consequences for its victims, and that’s medical identity theft. This crime occurs when someone uses your identity to get medical care, prescription drugs, or other related services; the issue becomes the resulting medical records. Whatever ailment, injury, or condition the thief received treatment for then becomes part of your health record. If someone received care for a heart condition or diabetes or even just has a different blood type than you, that can have a direct impact on the care you receive the next time you need it.

That’s frightening enough, but if someone uses your information to get their hands on prescription drugs, that can not only affect your care—as you’re now supposedly taking a drug that you do not actually take—but it can cause medical professionals to regard you with a certain amount of suspicion.

How so? If an identity thief uses your name to get highly controlled pain medications, and then you come to the emergency room complaining of pain, it’s logical that a doctor would look through your chart, see multiple visits for pain medication, and then decide that something fishy is going on. If you’re lucky he will simply refuse to provide further prescriptions; if you’re not as lucky, you may be getting a visit from a drug counselor or law enforcement. There have even been cases in which victims were referred to child protective services due to their apparent drug addictions, and social workers were called in to determine if the victims’ children should be removed.

Of course, that isn’t the worst thing that can happen to your prescription drug treatment if someone steals your identity for medical reasons. You could be denied lifesaving medication due to the interaction with a drug that the computer “thinks” you’re taking, thanks to someone else’s fraud. You may be given a drug in the emergency room to combat a condition you don’t have, all because your record states that you do. Finally, your identity theft case can even result in criminal consequences if the thief provides your name while attempting to fraudulently get prescription drugs, which can cause even more of a headache than before.

Staying on top of medical identity theft concerns isn’t as easy as checking your credit card statement for suspicious activity, though. When you get a bill from a doctor’s office or a statement from your health insurance company, look it over very carefully to make sure you weren’t billed for care that you didn’t receive, or that you didn’t have an entire office visit that you didn’t know about. If you’re in doubt, request an itemized bill from your health care provider that shows exactly what you were billed for. Bring up any of your concerns to the billing department immediately, and if you do find that someone has used your identity, file a police report as soon as possible.

Anyone can be a victim of identity theft, anyone can use our services, and anyone can help us help others. If you found this information useful, please consider donating to the Identity Theft Resource Center to help us keep our services free to the public.