Identity theft has become a fact of life in today's world. Anybody can be victimized by identity thieves--even doctors, nurses, accountants, and other licensed professionals. A key piece of information that cybercriminals try to obtain is your Social Security number (SSN). They can use it to open bank and credit card accounts in your name, file fraudulent income tax returns by your SSN to get refunds, create fake IDs with your name, and even apply for employment using your identity. If they obtain your medical ID, identity thieves can also obtain medical services, generating fraudulent billing to your insurance.
If you're a licensed professional and had your identity stolen, it stands to reason that you might be concerned about how (or if) this incident could eventually impact your professional license. Could your license be put at risk somehow because your identity was stolen?
Attorney Joseph D. Lento helps licensed professionals in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York who are facing challenges to their professional licenses. If you have concerns about how identity theft could affect the status of your license, the Lento Law Firm has compiled the following key information to help you stay informed.
What are some ways identity thieves might steal my information?
Identity thieves have all sorts of methods for stealing identifying information from you, including credit card numbers, addresses, Social Security Numbers, etc. Some common methods include:
- Hacking social media—hackers can break into your social media accounts and mine personal or financial information.
- Hacking wifi networks—if you buy something with a credit card on an unsecured network, for example, a hacker can lift your credit card info from it.
- Phishing scams—cybercriminals send fake emails that appear to be from legitimate institutions trying to trick you into providing your personal information.
- Viruses and malware. Malware can infiltrate your computer through email attachments or compromised websites. Hackers can then mine personal data right on your computer.
- Telemarketing scams—ID thieves call posing as customer service reps, IRS agency reps, and others to persuade you to divulge your credit card info, SSN, and more.
- Going through your mail—identity thieves can raid your physical mailbox to grab credit cards, bank statements, tax forms, etc., to get personal information from you.
- Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)—modern technology allows ID thieves to use readers to scan your credit cards while they are inside your wallet.
How Can Identity Thieves Misuse My Personal Information?
Once identity thieves have your info, they can misuse it in a variety of ways. Let's look at some common examples.
Basic identity theft. The most common use of your personal info is for thieves to open new credit accounts or take out loans using your name and SSN, charge up the bills, and not pay them—causing your credit rating to plummet.
Credit card fraud. Thieves obtain your credit card numbers, create duplicate cards, and use them—or just use the card numbers online.
Tax ID theft. Tax theft is a type of fraud that occurs when thieves file fake tax returns with either the IRS or state governments using your social security number—then pocket the refund—all before you get a chance to file the real return.
Medical identity theft. Someone steals your personal healthcare information (e.g., Medicare IDs or health insurance member number) then uses this information to get medical services fraudulently. This type of identity theft is on the rise and can cost the insurance company hundreds of thousands of dollars in fraudulent claims. Each time a fraudulent medical claim is filed under your name, you are at risk of having your medical coverage revoked or denied by your insurance provider—not to mention being sent huge bills for the portion your insurance doesn't cover.
Fake IDs. An identity thief can use your personal information (including address and social security number) to forge a fake ID. You could then be implicated in any activities that a person does while using that ID.
Employment identity theft. Another growing form of ID theft, employment identity theft, is when someone uses your personal information (usually your SSN) to apply for a job under false pretenses. They might even open a separate bank account in your name to collect the paychecks. This type of theft can go unnoticed for months or years because there is no immediate impact on you. You may not even realize something is wrong until you check your credit report and notice a place of employment you don't recognize—or if you apply for a job or a professional license and get rejected. (It's also possible you could get an audit notice from the IRS for underreported income.)
What are some ways in which identity theft might eventually affect my professional license?
Most forms of identity theft won't directly impact the status of your professional license—at least, not right away. It's usually through an indirect repercussion of identity theft that your license might be affected. Let's look at just a few examples (this is not a comprehensive list).
Suppose your identity was stolen, and the perpetrator used your information to create a fake ID. If that person is arrested for a crime and gives your name instead of their own (backed by the ID), it generates a criminal record that you don't deserve and don't even know about. If you apply for a professional license and the crime shows up on a background check, your license could be denied. Even worse, if law enforcement reports a criminal conviction to your licensing board, they could launch an investigation and possibly suspend or revoke your license.
Let's assume an identity thief uses your SSN to procure a job (employment identity theft), then proceeds to behave badly on that job. Perhaps the perpetrator sexually harasses a coworker, pilfers money from the till, or commits other forms of misconduct—possibly even getting fired. If anything that person did in your name shows up in public records or personal employer references, word could get back to the licensing board that you are suspected of misconduct. This could trigger an investigation if you're already licensed, or it could cause a license application to be denied.
If someone uses your medical information to seek treatment or generate fraudulent insurance bills (medical ID theft), this activity could link your name and SSN with fraud. Regardless of whether the activity results in an arrest, this alleged behavior specifically wouldn't sit well with certain licensing boards where insurance is involved (e.g., medical licenses, nursing licenses, insurance brokers, etc.). If you're implicated in insurance fraud through identity theft, it could result in denial of license or trigger an investigation into your current license.
If someone uses my personal information to obtain fraudulent loans or credit cards, could this put my professional license in jeopardy or cause my application to be denied?
Perhaps. Most licensing boards won't be concerned about your credit rating or the amount of debt you're carrying, so fraud that appears on your credit history may not have an impact. However, in some states, if student loans are in default, a professional license can be revoked. Financial services professionals may also find their credit reports under scrutiny.
If an identity thief causes me to have trouble with the IRS, could this put my professional license in jeopardy?
Probably not. Licensing boards don't usually look into your taxes. The only reason they might be concerned is if the fraudulent activity triggers criminal charges of tax evasion against you—and if you are working with the IRS to resolve an identity theft situation, this scenario is highly unlikely.
If my state licensing board accuses me of misconduct due to the actions of an identity thief, what does the disciplinary process look like?
Each state and each licensing board has its own procedure for investigating and disciplining professional licensure violations. However, in most cases, the process follows a set of steps similar to the following:
- Initial review. The licensing board will perform a preliminary review to see if the complaint meets their criteria for an investigation or falls within their jurisdiction.
- Investigation. The board will investigate the complaint to determine whether or not it has merit. The investigation may include questioning witnesses and asking you for a written response. You might also be asked to appear in person to answer some questions.
- Consent order. The licensing board may offer to negotiate a consent order with you. A consent order is an agreement between the state, the licensing board, and you in which you agree to submit voluntarily to prescribed sanctions or penalties as an alternative to going into a formal hearing. (If identity theft has triggered the investigation, a consent order is probably not advisable since it's effectively an admission of guilt.)
- Formal hearing. The licensing board may call for a formal hearing to take place either in front of the board or in front of Administrative Law Judge—complete with lawyers.
- Disciplinary action. After the hearing, the board or judge will make a final determination as to what sort of penalty (if any) the board will invoke.
- Appeal. You can appeal any adverse decisions to the appeals court system in your state.
While this disciplinary process is basically the “worst-case scenario,” bear in mind that if the allegations are baseless and have been caused by identity theft, a good professional license attorney can present evidence and negotiate at multiple points along this timeline to have the complaint dismissed.
What disciplinary actions might the licensing board take against me?
If, for some reason, the licensing board cannot be convinced that your troubles have been caused by identity theft—or if you allow the situation to play out without presenting your evidence—the board may opt to impose any of the following penalties against you:
- Revoking your license. Your professional license may be permanently canceled.
- Suspension. The board may suspend your license for a time, subject to eventual reinstatement.
- Restrictions. The board may place limits on what you can and can't do as a licensed professional.
- Fines. The board may impose financial penalties.
- Probation. The board may monitor your practice for a time.
- Supervision. The board may allow you to continue working, but under the supervision of another licensed professional.
- Reprimand/censure. The board may simply choose to issue a formal reprimand and place it in your file.
Could these disciplinary actions do damage to my career even if they don't revoke my license?
Yes. Most disciplinary actions against licensed professionals are a matter of public record, so any interested party can check your credentials and see whether you have any disciplinary marks. In some cases (not all), this may affect someone's decision to hire or work with you.
My licensing board has launched an investigation of misconduct allegations related to my identity theft. Why should I hire an attorney when I have done nothing wrong?
There is a saying, “Truth will out,” but that doesn't mean the truth will automatically surface without help. For best results, you should always have proper legal representation during a professional license investigation, even if you're completely innocent. Here's why:
- The licensing board has no reason to believe you're innocent. The board's job is not to protect you, but to protect the public against bad actors. This is not a jury trial where you're considered innocent until proven guilty. From the moment an investigation is launched, the board is looking for evidence to confirm the allegations—and identity theft can provide them with the evidence they are looking for, even though that evidence may be skewed. You won't be able to convince the board of your innocence without skilled arguments and presenting your own evidence to refute the allegations. Hiring an experienced professional license attorney gives you a better chance at mounting a successful defense.
- A license investigation is a legal matter. This issue is more than just a “misunderstanding” with the licensing board. Your professional license represents a legal agreement with the state, and the allegations against you represent a possible breach of that agreement. It's always best to have legal representation when addressing legal issues.
How can a professional license attorney help me fight allegations related to identity theft?
Your chances of saving your license go up exponentially when you hire a professional license attorney. An experienced attorney will:
- Assess the allegations against you and the evidence supporting them (if any) to determine what is at stake.
- Develop a defense strategy that is most likely to resolve the matter in your favor.
- Gather and present the evidence to the board in a compelling manner.
- Act as your official legal representative in all interactions with the board.
- Negotiate aggressively on your behalf for a dismissal of the complaint.
- Present a persuasive defense that proves your innocence.
Hiring a professional license attorney right away can help you protect your rights and increase your chances of preserving your career and keeping your license.
Do I need to make any changes in my workflow or practice during a licensing investigation?
No—not unless the board suspends your license for an interim period (which is very rare). If you have a good attorney in your corner, any license dispute related to identity theft should be resolved without any disruption to your practice. Unless the licensing board tells you to suspend activities, don't feel pressured to change your recruiting or marketing efforts.
Do I have to tell my coworkers, clients, or patients the details of the investigation?
In most cases, no. There is no legal obligation to inform anyone about the fact that you are being investigated. The only exception is if your work agreement requires that you disclose such information to a company, agency, or facility where you're working. If that clause is in your contract, you could lose your job if you don't disclose that you're being investigated.
If word about the investigation happens to leak and someone asks about it, a professional answer would be to confirm the investigation without giving too much detail. Tell the person that you are cooperating with the investigation and that you intend to continue providing excellent service during this time.
I've just been notified that my license is under investigation. What do I do now?
It's important to take action to protect your license as soon as you receive word of investigation. Hiring a skilled professional license defense attorney gives you the best chance of being exonerated or having the complaint dismissed. If you wait until a formal hearing is announced, you will be immediately on the defensive. However, if an experienced attorney takes action right away, the chances are that no formal hearing will be necessary.
Identity theft can complicate your life, and in rare cases, it might create issues with your professional license. However, identity theft does not also need to rob you of your livelihood. If you act quickly by hiring an experienced attorney, you can protect your professional license, and by extension, your career. However, doing nothing could result in serious repercussions that you don't deserve. If you are licensed to practice in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, or New York, attorney Joseph D. Lento has the necessary experience and working knowledge of the state licensing processes to protect your career from the fallout of identity theft. Take action now to protect your career. Contact the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686 today to discuss your options.