Woman steals identity to get liver transplant

Posted at 10:48 PM, Apr 26, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-27 13:10:29-04

Crooks stealing your identity and having major medical procedures, for free. You won't believe how far one Wisconsin woman went pretending to be someone else.

She had a liver transplant using a stolen identity. The woman bought someone else's Social Security number on the black market for around $1,500. Our investigation into medical identity theft also revealed how criminals could be putting your life at risk.

Just married, Craig Murdock and his wife were trying to buy their first home together. "They told me 'well you've got this bill that has not been paid.'" The Murdock's were denied a loan because of an outstanding medical bill for a heart procedure Craig never had.

"It's not me, and that's all I could keep saying," Craig told us. That's when the Kenosha man realized he was a victim of medical identity theft. "I had no clue, at all, and for me that was the biggest shocker."

And that's the problem with this crime.  It can go undetected for years. 

A Monroe, Wisconsin woman assumed someone else's identity and used that to get medical care from 2004 until 2011.  Amira Avendano-Hernandez was sentenced to six months in prison for a federal crime.

She received a liver transplant that saved her life, but it was surgery that Avendano-Hernandez didn't pay for.  An undocumented immigrant, she bought someone else's Social Security number on the black market.  The victim, Wanda Aquino, lives in Puerto Rico.  Avendano-Hernandez used her name to apply for Social Security and disability benefits.

John Vaudreuil is the U.S. Attorney General for the Western District of Wisconsin.  His office prosecuted Avendano-Hernandez. "We charged health care fraud, because really what she ended up doing was a scam to defraud health care by filing false claims," Vaudreuil told us.

Avendano-Hernandez pleaded guilty to milking the state and federal government out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.  

"I've been here close to 40 years, and we haven't seen that kind of fraud," said Vaudreuil.

The court ordered her to pay back more than $230,000. "Whatever they get your ID for is up to their imagination, their criminal imagination," Vaudreuil commented.

Medical identity theft is a growing crime.  The number of patients affected jumped in the last year.  According to a new study more than 2 million Americans have been victims, many of them paying thousands of dollars to resolve the crime against them.

"The world is a smorgasbord if somebody has your personal information," said Frank Frassetto.

Frassetto, who lives near Oshkosh, works for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. He advises monitoring your medical statements for any suspicious activity. 

"Where it says this is not a bill, your insurance company is telling you, here are the activities that have taken place recently, and if you find that you weren't at the doctor on the day you see something on your monthly statement, you're going to have a potential problem."

He says discovering the problem early is key to stopping the crooks before the damage becomes severe.

There are ways to protect yourself from becoming a victim. Experts say don't share medical or insurance information by phone or email unless you initiated the contact. Shred outdated health insurance forms and labels from prescription bottles before you throw them out. And if you share your information online, make sure the URL begins with HTTPS. The "S" means secure.

The Murdock's ended up paying the $1500 creditors said they owed. Craig now has extra safeguards in place to protect his family's identity. "Once you go through it and you have somebody take what you feel is your security that you can grow off of, it destroys you."

In the case of Avendano-Hernandez, the Wisconsin hospital treating her eventually noticed some red flags and alerted the attorney general's office.

The victim in Puerto Rico did not know her identity had been stolen until authorities contacted her.

Victims of this type of crime may also be at risk when it comes to their medical care. Many times the criminal's information is now in the real patient's medical file.  That's information used by hospitals, doctor's offices, pharmacies, and it sometimes takes years to correct.

Protect yourself from becoming a victim: