Hospital ID Theft Leads to FraudEight Indicted for Using Stolen Patient Info to Make Purchases
Eight alleged members of an identity theft ring, including a former assistant clerk at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, have been indicted on a variety of charges stemming from using stolen information on nearly 13,000 patients to make purchases at retailers.
Ann Patterson, senior vice president and program director of the Medical Identity Fraud Alliance, says that the incident points to the need for ongoing vigilance by healthcare organizations to prevent and detect ID theft and other related crimes.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. alleges in a statement that members of the ID theft ring made up to $50,000 in purchases at retailers in Manhattan by opening up store credit card accounts using patient information stolen by former hospital worker, Monique Walker, 32.
Walker was an assistant clerk at Montefiore Medical Center, where her position gave her access to patients' names, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, and other personal information, Vance says.
Between 2012 and 2013, Walker allegedly printed thousands of patients' records on a near daily basis and supplied them to a co-defendant, Fernando Salazar, 28, according to Vance's statement.
Salazar is accused of acting as the ringleader of the operation. He allegedly purchased at least 250 items personal identifying information from Walker for as little as $3 per record, Vance says.
The stolen information was then allegedly provided to other defendants to open credit card accounts that were used for purchasing gift cards and merchandize at retailers, including Barneys New York, Macy's, Victoria's Secret, Zales, Bergdorf Goodman and Lord & Taylor.
Walker is charged with one count of felony grand larceny and one count of felony unlawful possession of personal identification information. The other defendants are charged with varying counts of grand larceny, identity theft and criminal possession of a forged instrument, among other charges.
All of the defendants have been arrested and arraigned in criminal court, and have various dates pending for their next court appearances.
"Case after case, we've seen how theft by a single company insider, who is often working with identity thieves on the outside, can rapidly victimize a business and thousands of its customers," Vance says. "Motivated by greed, profit and a complete disregard for their victims, identity thieves often feed stolen information to larger criminal operations, which then go on to defraud additional businesses and victims. In this case, a hospital employee privy to confidential patient records allegedly sold financial information for as little $3 per record."
Hospital Fires Worker
A Montefiore spokeswoman tells Information Security Media Group that the medical center was informed by law enforcement on May 15 of Walker's alleged crimes dating back to 2012 and 2013. As a result, Walker, who worked for the hospital for about three years, was fired, the spokeswoman says. "Montefiore is fully cooperating with law enforcement, including the Manhattan's District Attorney's office," a hospital statement says.
Law enforcement discovered the connection to Montefiore patient information while investigators were working on the ID theft case, the Montefiore spokeswoman says.
Of the 12,000-plus patient records that were compromised, it's uncertain how many individuals are victims of ID theft crimes, she says. But as a precaution, Montefiore is offering all impacted patients free identity recovery services, 12 months of free credit monitoring and a $1 million insurance policy to protect against identity theft-related costs.
Montefiore has reported the breach to the Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights, the spokeswoman says. While that incident as of June 22 was not yet listed on HHS' "wall of shame" tally of health data breaches affecting 500 or more individuals, three other breaches at Montefiore Medical Center appear on the federal website.
Those incidents, all reported in 2010, involved the theft of unencrypted computers. That includes the theft of a laptop in March 2010 which resulted in a breach impacting 625; and two July 2010 thefts of desktop computers that impacted 16,820 and 23,753 individuals.
Breach Prevention Steps
In a statement, Montefiore says that following the alleged crimes committed by Walker that were discovered in May, the hospital has expanded both its technology monitoring capabilities and employee training on safeguarding and accessing patient records to further bolster its privacy safeguards.
"The employee involved in this case received significant privacy and security training and despite that training, chose to violate our policies," the statement notes. "In response to this incident, Montefiore is also adding additional technical safeguards to protect patient information from theft or similar criminal activity in the future."
A hospital spokeswoman says the hospital has rolled out "sophisticated technology" to monitor for improper access by employees to the hospital's electronic patient records
The hospital also says it performs criminal background checks on all employees and "has comprehensive policies and procedures, as well as a code of conduct, which prohibits employees from looking at patient records when there is not a work-related reason to do so."
Steps to Take
Dan Berger, CEO of security consulting firm RedSpin, says it's not surprising the breach went undetected for so long because insider attacks are difficult to uncover. It's unclear if the Montefiore hospital clerk had "good reason to access so many records" as part of her job, he notes.
Patterson of the Medical Identity Fraud Alliance notes: "In addition to proper vetting of employees, the continued evaluation of employee education and awareness training programs and of your internal fraud detection programs is necessary. It's not something you do once and are done. Employees who are properly vetted upon initial hire may have changing circumstances that change their work integrity later on in their employ."
Additionally, security measures often need tweaking as circumstances within an organization change, she says.
"Fraud detection processes that worked when a specific type of workflow procedure was in place may need to be adjusted as that workflow process changes. An emphasis on continued evaluation of all components - people, process, technologies - for fraud detection is good practice."
Workforce training is important not only for preventing breaches, including those involving ID crimes, but also to help detect those incidents, she says. "Each employee must understand their role in protecting PHI. Equally important is regular and continued evaluation of the training programs to make sure that employees are adhering to the policies put in place, and that the 'red flags' detection systems are keeping pace with changing technologies and workplace practices."