Vol. 7 Issue 6
Nurse Identity Theft
When it comes to protecting licensure and other personal info, nurses can't be too careful
"John" knows how suddenly one's personal information can be seized. He learned the hard way.
About 2 years ago, John, who is a nurse, lost his wallet while visiting a crowded college campus on a Friday afternoon. He estimates that he traveled only about 30 yards before realizing he lost his billfold, which held his driver's license, Social Security card and one credit card.
A frantic search ensued, but still no wallet. John decided to head to the local police station, calling the bank of the lone credit card he carried to report the missing card en route.
But it was already too late. Though he didn't realize at the time, by Monday morning John would learn that the "finders-keepers" of his wallet would be approved for more than 10 lines of credit in John's name.
While his identity, and life, have since been restored, he'll never forget the head-spinning rat race he endured for nearly a year, not to mention the accompanying nightmares, as he fought diligently to reclaim his name and financial stability among the creditors who would consecutively call his home looking for payments.
The good news was his nursing license wasn't in his wallet and his career went unaffected. Still, the ordeal was stressful enough.
"I felt so violated," he said. "It was a very bad situation. I had to submit a police report for every credit account that was opened. I was planning to buy a new house at that time, too, and that got held up. My reputation was really smeared for a while. Ever since, I pay more attention to how deep my pockets are before I carry my wallet around."
THOUSANDS OF THIEVES, VICTIMS
Falsifying one's identity has become a true problem in this country.
Nearly 250,000 people were victims of identity theft in 2006 alone, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). And this number is significantly higher than the 31,103 individuals who reported such crimes in 2000, the first year the FTC began compiling such information.
"By that time it had come to everyone's attention that this was a growing problem," said Claudia Bourne Farrell, a spokesperson with the FTC. "While people use other consumers' information for different permutations some do so to obtain credit cards, bank loans, cell phone contracts, or to receive medical treatment, these actions all result in the appropriation of another's identity."
While FTC officials don't classify those who report identity theft by their profession, ADVANCE has learned that nurses, as credentialed professionals, are surely among this population, and the consequences have impacted many careers.
In the past 2 years, ADVANCE has reported on multiple cases of LPNs being affected by identity theft, described by the FTC as the use of personally identifying information, such as a name or Social Security number (SSN), without permission, to commit fraud or other crimes.
These involved cases in which individuals were caught practicing under the auspices of another's license. Additionally, the LPN community has been impacted by those posing as nurses through the unlawful alteration of invalid licenses. LPNs themselves have also been found guilty of these offenses.
Most recently, a Connecticut LPN was arrested March 8 by inspectors from the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit in the Elder Service Bureau for allegedly working as a practical nurse with an expired state license.
Charged with working as an unlicensed nurse and one count each of unlawful use of the LPN title and forgery in the second degree, Carol Forselius, LPN, is facing up to 15 years in prison.
On Jan. 2, Nancie Fisher of Stafford, NJ, pled guilty to unlawfully representing herself as an LPN and a PhD.
Stories such as these have led nursing officials to re-establish licensing procedures for their nurses.
MARYLAND NIXES PAPER LICENSES
Donna Dorsey, MS, RN, FAAN, executive director of the Maryland Board of Nursing, estimates that the board is involved in about 10 cases each year concerning people she describes as "identity imposters."
"We've had issues with imposters people who are not nurses but who have printed licenses that they try to create from scratch," she related. "We've had people who have tried working as a nurse or a nursing assistant, though they don't have the training or education. One time we had a student, who didn't finish school, use the [license] number of a friend who was originally licensed in the state but had left. But it's rare that somebody actually 'copies' somebody else's license."
While these scenarios are rare, Dorsey concedes that related identity theft crimes seem to be on the rise among nurses.
"They've definitely been increasing," she said. "There's a great job market right now for nurses, and people are trying to take advantage of it."
In a somewhat preemptive measure to decrease any kind of phony license retrieval, Dorsey said the board has done away with issuing tangible licenses to its nurses effective April 1. This goes for first-time licensees and those renewing.
Instead, nurses must register their licenses online through the board's Web site. Once registered, nurses are officially licensed even though there's no physical license issued or available for printing.
"We've made the decision to stop issuing paper licenses," Dorsey said. "But there are still those, such as myself, who still have paper licenses because it will take a full year to fully implement electronic renewals."
The board has heard complaints from nurses who aren't happy with the new method, Dorsey said. She explains to these nurses that this decision was made to promote safety, not to make the process more complicated.
"But there are nurses who've told us they like having that piece of paper because that's what they were used to for many years," Dorsey said. "It's been hard for some to get used to, but I think most understand that in the long run this will benefit them."
Similarly, employers in the state wishing to look up a nurse's license must do so online, unless the nurse in question can still be verified by a paper license.
"In the past, employers were given an actual license from the nurse and would make copies of it to keep on file," Dorsey continued. "We've always discouraged that, but soon that won't even be an issue because paper licenses will be gone. In the meantime we've asked employers to make sure they keep those copies confidential."
Once the paper licenses have been phased out, Dorsey said the only way employers will be able to access one's nursing credentials will be through online license verification.
She said the online method is just as successful in revealing those who aren't licensed as is asking nurses to provide tangible proof.
"If you don't know how to be a nurse, you get caught pretty quickly," she said. "Most of the time, we catch these people because the employer has concerns about them when they apply for a job. They usually don't get the jobs. But, when they do, they don't tend to last long."
When a potentially fraudulent nurse is brought to the board's attention, Dorsey said, the individual is prosecuted, the license is voided and a new number is assigned to any nurse who may have been infringed upon.
"We also have the authority to fine them, once there's documentation say if they filled out an application and used a falsified document," Dorsey added. "If we've got all the evidence we need, we'll press charges."
While Virginia hasn't gone paperless, it does conduct licensure renewals online, as do Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Washington, DC.
MAINTAINING ONLINE SAFETY
Online measures are also in place in Virginia, said Jay Douglas, MSM (masters of science in management), RN, executive director of the nursing board. While online verification has existed for some time in the state, Douglas said the system was recently modified for security purposes.
"We changed our license inquiry system about a year ago," Douglas continued. "We used to allow employers to enter a nurse's Social Security number to search for a license, but we no longer allow that because of the risk of someone trying to pull up multiple individuals by changing numbers. Now, you can only look up people by entering their licensure number, last name and last four digits of their Social Security number; or name, occupation, state of residence and zip code. While strict identification info isn't required with this third option, Douglas said this data is accessible by the public by law and could be attained by other means such as calling the board.
In Maryland, special precautions are also taken to ensure the board's online methods are safe and effective.
"I can't comment on the methods we use, but nurses have multiple confidential identifiers they have to enter into the system themselves in order to be able to register or renew their licenses," Dorsey said. "Nobody can access their information without this information and we expect them not to share this info with others."
Though she couldn't divulge specifics, Dorsey did say the board employs VeriSign, a national online security intelligence company, and adds that these "identifiers" do not include pin numbers because they could be apprehended just as easily as an SSN.
OTHER SECURITY MEASURES
Protecting nurses' licenses isn't restricted to online options, board officials say.
In Pennsylvania, for example, board staff has received specialty training from the state police to heighten identity theft awareness. Cathy Ennis, deputy press secretary for the state department of health, said this training was designed to help staff more easily identify fraudulent documents and understand the signs of an altered document.
"Staff was shown what a chemically washed document looks like," she said. "In relation to the chemical washing and lifting of the original name from the document, staff learned to look at the line underneath the name to identify whether the line was too long or too short. On a form with a revision date, we learned to look at the signature date and compare it to the form's revision date. If the dated signature is before the revision date, the document is probably fraudulent. Also, an official document with misspelled words is probably fraudulent. If the margins of the document are uneven or crooked, it was probably copied. And official documents are not usually copied."
Additionally, Ennis said databases containing all licensee information are secured at two offsite locations. Online documents are protected by firewalls and intrusion-alert software.
In Connecticut, all licenses are printed on what the department of health considers "security paper" that can't be altered, said William Gerrish, spokesperson for the state's department of health.
"Each license contains a special watermark that, should someone attempt to copy it, the word 'void' would appear on the front," he said.
Connecticut also requires all nursing students to have a picture taken before completing their licensure exam. These pictures then remain on file with the department of health and are referred to in the event of any identity concerns employers might have. All applications for hire in the state must be notarized to be considered, Gerrish said.
In New York, nurses can opt to have their driver's license photo reprinted on their nursing license through a joint effort between the nursing board and the department of motor vehicles, said Laurene C. O'Brien, MS, RN, nursing associate to the executive secretary.
To participate, nurses must fill out a form that's sent to them by the nursing board after they're officially registered.
O'Brien also said the state is in the process of switching to online renewals.
"We are going to have this at some point, probably in the next several months, but there is no timeline," she said.
Regardless of the steps nursing boards and health departments enact to protect their nurses, officials said nurses must also take it upon themselves to use discretion to protect their identities and licensures.
"You have to be cautious about who you give your information to," Douglas said. "When you get calls from telemarketers, they act like they've known you all your life. I know I'm very careful about what I say over the phone."
"What we tell our nurses and students we visit is that they can protect their license by not sharing their number with anyone," she said. "We had one nurse who recently told us someone stopped her in the elevator to 'borrow her license for a little bit.' That's the kind of thing to be careful of. Identity theft is something we all have to worry about. But you can't live your life being fearful all the time. You just have to be smart."
Joe Darrah is associate editor at ADVANCE.