Investigations: Identity Fraud

By Smith, Travis | Law & Order, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Investigations: Identity Fraud


Smith, Travis, Law & Order


The Hard Lesson of Higher Education

In 1974, the Committee on Government Operations was charged with the task of reviewing the use of social security numbers as personal identifiers. In doing so, the committee heard evidence that the use of this number by various government agencies and private organizations as a personal identifier was helping to improve efficiency of services, aid in management functions, reduce errors in the identification of people, and prevent fraud.

Yes, prevent fraud. But those were simpler times and identity fraud was not as sophisticated as it is today.

So it seemed easier for state governments, local governments, and a number of federal agencies that had no affiliation with the Social Security Administration to argue that to prevent the use of this number as a personal identifier would be a tremendous burden-fiscally as well as administratively. All of which made for a rather specious argument since the Social Security card proviso at the time was that "it is not to be used for identification purposes"-a phrase that is missing from today's cards.

Nevertheless, this Committee saw the potential for abuse, noting that it considered the usage of this number as a personal identifier as one of the most serious manifestations of privacy concerns in the nation. It recommended Congress pass a bill to limit the use of this number as a personal identifier pass, which it did.

The trouble is, this little known law is hard to find because it was never officially codified-as if some compromise was reached between those who wanted the law and those who didn't. Today this law has the potential to help make a large dent in the crime of identity fraud.

It states:

(a)(1) It shall be unlawful for any Federal, State or local government agency to deny to any individual any right, benefit, or privilege provided by law because of such individual's refusal to disclose his social security account number.

"(2) The provisions of paragraph (1) of this subsection shall not apply with respect to

"(A) any disclosure which is required by Federal statute, or

"(B) the disclosure of a social security number to any Federal, State, or local agency maintaining a system of records in existence and operating before January 1, 1975, if such disclosure was required under statute or regulation adopted prior to such date to verify the identity of an individual.

"(b) Any Federal, State, or local government agency which requests an individual to disclose his social security account number shall inform that individual whether that disclosure is mandatory or voluntary, by what statutory or other authority such number is solicited, and what uses will be made of it."

The question is, where to start?

The College Campus

One of the hardest lessons being learned on today's college campuses is not in a classroom, but rather on the campuses. It is a crash course in crime and economics that quickly adds up, and the criminals know it. This, and the fact there is a new group of victims at the start of each school year, is why identity fraud has not only found a home on the college campus, it has found a central place of operation.

While this statement may seem exaggerated or come as a surprise to various federal agencies, it is something campus law enforcement has become more aware of over the past several years due to the ease at which this crime can be committed. Add to this the influx of international students who are usually easy marks, along with the possibility that some of these students are contacts for international fraud rings or unwittingly allow members of such rings to blend in on campus, and the problem gets worse.

One of the reasons this crime is so lucrative and easy to commit on a college campus is because students simply don't care, at least not right away. Nor do they know about the various federal laws pertaining to social security numbers-like the one listed above. …

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