Seniors' Identity Theft Dilemma

Government-issued cards make it difficult to protect yourself.

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It sounds so simple: To help prevent identity theft, leave your Social Security card at home. That way, if your wallet gets stolen, the thief won't be able to set up accounts in your name.

That was the advice of Ed Farrell, associate director at Consumer Reports' National Research Center, when I interviewed him on camera recently.

But one astute reader, Sheri of Washington, took issue with that advice, because she says retirees with Medicare cards need to carry the cards with them in case of medical emergencies, and those cards contain Social Security numbers.

Sheri raises a great point, and one that is a common concern among seniors. Sally Hurme, consumer advocate at AARP, says she hears the question a lot, and her advice is that you do not need to carry your Medicare card around with you. If you know you are going to the doctor, then bring it along, but otherwise, leave it home. As for emergencies, Hurme says, "You may have to produce your Medicare card before you get out of the hospital, but you don't need the card to get in." Emergency rooms do not discriminate based on ability to pay.

Another option, says Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, is to make a copy of your card and black out your Social Security number with a marker. Providers may be able to look up your medical records with that truncated version, she says. Meanwhile, Givens urges people concerned about this issue to contact their congressional representatives to encourage the federal government to stop using Social Security numbers on cards.