Beware of racketeers making big money on patient records

Armed robbery and drug trafficking are no longer the only crimes of choice for gangs. Instead of a gun, their newest weapon of choice is a mobile phone with Internet access. Now more sophisticated gang members are targeting medical practices and using their smart phones to steal patient records.  

This is part of an organized crime ring that’s netting offenders up to $50,000 a night in stolen identities and false tax return filings.

It’s not uncommon for the friend of a gang member to infiltrate a medical practice, gain access to EHRs, download patient information and hand it over to the offender. That person will book a hotel room, set up a “team” and a cell phone bank, submit false tax returns online and generate huge profits in one night. 

Florida is hotbed for this activity and it’s spreading across the country. In California, narcotics investigators took down a methamphetamine ring and confiscated 4,500 patient records. Investigators believe the stolen information was being used to obtain prescription drugs to make the illicit drug.

Stolen patient information will not only bring big Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) fines for data breaches; the additional direct and indirect expense of a breach can be financially catastrophic. But now there is a strong financial incentive to steal patient information - one lost or stolen patient record is valued at $50 on the black market.

Protect your practice. Medical practices need to realize they are vulnerable to security break-ins and should take steps to reduce their risk of stolen electronic protected health information by performing a risk assessment and identifying potential “leaks.” Here are the steps that organizations should take to protect this information

  1. Inventory patient information: Capture an inventory of where patient information is stored, accessed or transmitted. Most people think of an EHR as their only source of patient records but patient information can be in a Microsoft Word document in the form of patient letters, or Excel spreadsheets as billing reports or scanned images of Insurance Explanation of Benefits. These documents could be on desktops or laptops. Patient information could also be in emails or text messages in smartphones or tablets.
  2. Assess current security measures: A security risk assessment looks at how patient information is currently protected. How often does the practice perform data backups? Is there a termination procedure? Do employees have the minimum level of access to patient information? Are all portable devices secured and protected?
  3. Evaluate common threats to patient information: Physical risks, the likelihood of a threat and the impact of the threat if it occurs must also assessed. In addition to employees pilfering patient records, how are practices protecting information in the case of fire or flood, lost or stolen laptops containing patient information, sending emails to the wrong patient, to name a few. If the practice has patient information stored on laptops and physicians frequently take them out of the office and that information is not properly protected it may result in a large HIPAA fine – high risk with a high impact.
  4. Recommend additional security: A security risk assessment will identify additional security measures to prevent the likelihood of a threat and its impact. For example, limit who can take laptops out of the office, or ensure that they’re safely locked in a secured cabinet. 

A thorough security risk assessment can help a medical practice identify the additional security or procedures needed to help lower the risk of common threats.

Art Gross is president and CEO of HIPAA Secure Now!