NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Today brings a new era in the health care market as the open enrollment stage of the Affordable Care Act kicks off.

Unfortunately, identity theft fraudsters are trying to get in on the action and designing ways to separate Americans from their money, this time using health care reform as leverage.

Research from the Ponemon Institute shows that medical I.D. theft in the U.S. -- "when someone uses an individual's name and personal identity to fraudulently receive medical services, goods, and/or prescription drugs, including attempts to commit fraudulent billing" -- is up 20% in the past year, affecting 1.8 million Americans, who will lose $12 billion in out-of-pocket costs to medical identity theft.

The study also says health care consumers are unaware the loss of key medical data can lead to major "inaccuracies" in their health care records, which in turn can trigger "misdiagnosis, mistreatment or the wrong prescriptions."

"Medical identity theft is tainting the health care ecosystem, much like poisoning the town's water supply, and everyone will be affected," says Larry Ponemon, chairman and founder of the Ponemon Institute, a Michigan consultancy focused on privacy, data protection and information security policy. "Consumers are completely unaware of the seriousness and dangers of medical identity theft."

To throw a spotlight on the issue in advance of major changes coming to the nation's health care system, the Washington, D.C.-based Consumer Federation of America is out with some fresh tips on how I.D. con artists try to dupe health care consumers out of their personal data.

"Whenever there is a new government program or benefit, fraudsters will look for ways to take advantage of it by tricking people into giving them money or personal information," says Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the federation. "We want to make sure that consumers get the real facts about how the new law works, know how to find legitimate help if they need it and avoid being misled by scammers."

The CFA is advising consumers to be on guard for scams when it comes to health care data and to keep the following in mind:
  • You likely won't have to make big changes. Under the ACA, if you already have a health care plan, you don't have to do anything at all. The new open enrollment health care exchanges are only for Americans who have no insurance. So if you get a call or email from a health insurance "provider" claiming they need personal data to incorporate into their system, hang up the phone or delete the email. Chances are you're being targeted by an I.D. fraudster.
  • Uncle Sam won't be contacting you. The federal government is not selling health insurance policies to Americans. If you get a call or an email from someone purporting to be from the government looking to "sign you up" for a specific health care plan, ignore it. And whatever you do, don't offer your Social Security number or bank account and/or credit card number to anyone purporting to be from the government.
  • There are no fees to sign up. There's no requirement to pay a fee to enroll in a government-run health care insurance exchange. If you're asked by someone claiming to be from the government or a health insurance provider asking for an upfront fee, know that it's a bogus request. As the CFA says, "If anyone wants to charge you for providing information or helping you sign up, it's a scam."