Identity Theft and Social Security Numbers. (Calling All Consumers)
Adrianson, Alex, Consumers' Research Magazine
Identity theft can be a real nuisance--if not a harrowing experience--for the victim. Unfortunately, the news on this front has not gotten any better, particularly regarding Social Security numbers, as indicated by recent GAO reports and congressional testimony.
In addition to the hassle to victims of clearing up fraudulent bank accounts and credit card debts, the public is put at risk because identity theft is sometimes connected to more serious crimes like drug trafficking and terrorism. Last year, the Department of Justice found, for example, that 61 individuals working at the Salt Lake City International Airport had misused SSNs to obtain the highest level of security badge, and that 125 others had misused SSNs to obtain lower level badges.
SSNs are ubiquitous. Some have called them a "de facto national ID card." In addition to being used to determine eligibility and benefits for Social Security, SSNs are used by the Department of Agriculture, which collects them from both Food Stamp beneficiaries and the owners of retail businesses participating in the Food Stamp program; by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for housing programs; by the Department of Veterans Affairs, for veteran programs; by the Internal Revenue Service, which collects them on tax returns; by the Department of Education, which collects them from parents of financial aid applicants; and by any government agency that contracts with the private sector. States are also required to collect SSNs from beneficiaries in administering many joint state/federal assistance programs; and from parents before issuing a birth certificate. State and local governments also routinely collect SSNs from potential jurors and blood donors.
The ubiquity of the Social Security Number is what makes it both vulnerable and attractive to thieves. "SSNs play an important role in identity theft because they are used as breeder information to create additional false identification documents, such as drivers' licenses," says the GAO.
In spite of the usefulness of SSNs to criminals, the numbers are easily obtainable from public sources. The GAO found that many local governments and all federal, state, and local courts maintain public documents that identify individuals' SSNs.
The GAO also found that government agencies at all levels routinely fail to provide to individuals from whom they request SSNs with information required by law. …