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Calls Rising to Protect Exposure of Social Security Numbers
By Michael S. James
June 5 - It's everywhere you don't want it to be.
Your Social Security number may be on your driver's license, your health club card, your student ID and those forms you recently filled out at the doctor's office, or for an online purchase.
It also may be available for thieves who want to impersonate or rob you.
Security experts say people are taking personal security risks by divulging their Social Security numbers so readily, and some politicians are advocating legislation to force such free trade in Social Security numbers to stop.
"Misuse of the SSN, catalyzed by the Internet, has quickly become a national crisis," James Huse Jr., the Social Security Administration's Inspector General, told the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security, May 22.
"The time has come to put the SSN back into its box," he added, arguing that the Social Security number is the principal component used to commit identity theft, which costs people and institutions hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
"If I've got your Social Security number, I can, for all intents and purposes, be you," says computer security expert Mark Rasch. "If I called the bank and have enough information to convince them I was you, I could convince them to do stuff. People have had their credit reports ruined. They've had their accounts terminated. Things like that."
‘Culture of Dependence’
In Congress, several of the subcommittee's members recently announced a new bill to restrict use of Social Security numbers.
"We have literally developed a culture of dependence on the Social Security number," Rep. E. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., and Rep. Jerry Kleczka, D-Wis., wrote May 25 in a letter to solicit congressional support for the bill. "All of us know how difficult it is to conduct even the most frivolous transaction without having to cough up our Social Security numbers first."
Rasch, vice president of cyber law for Predictive Systems, a computer networking consulting company based in Reston, Va., says there currently are a handful of other House and Senate measures that seek to restrict use of Social Security numbers in various ways.
He says there already exist limited regulations on Social Security number use, some passed as early as 1974. Nevertheless, he said, there still are holes that allow identity theft involving Social Security numbers to be rampant.
The Shaw bill would restrict the sale, distribution and public display of Social Security numbers by government agencies, and would authorize the attorney general to create restrictions for businesses and private groups. It also would create federal penalties for certain businesses that refuse to provide services if an individual won't reveal a Social Security number, and would create additional penalties to deter illegal sale, purchase or misuse of Social Security numbers.
Exceptions would be made for businesses, such as banks and stock brokerages, which must gather Social Security numbers to report clients' financial information to the federal government.
Last year, the House of Representatives did not act on a bill similar to the "Social Security Number Privacy and Identity Theft Prevention Act of 2001." The bill got approval from the Ways and Means Committee, but the congressional session ended before it could be debated in other committees. The sponsors introduced this year's version earlier in the legislative session to allow more time for consideration.
Social Security numbers were first created to track workers' Social Security earnings, and now more broadly track individual finances for tax purposes.
Needed for Commerce?
Many institutions and businesses track customers, orders and histories using Social Security numbers, and some worry that restricting their use could mean costly reorganization of records, and that too many regulations could disable an integral tool for commerce.
"The financial services industry has used the SSN for many decades as a unique identifier for a broad range of responsible purposes that benefit consumers and the economy," John C. Dugan testified before the Social Security subcommittee, on behalf of the Financial Services Coordinating Council, a financial services industry group.
"For example," Dugan added, "our nation's remarkably efficient credit reporting system — which has helped make America's affordable and accessible credit the envy of the world — relies fundamentally on the SSN as a common identifier to compile disparate information from many different sources into a single, reliable credit report for a given individual."
‘I Was Forced to Be a Victim’
But victims of identity theft also testified, blaming lapses in security involving their Social Security numbers for damaging their finances and reputations.
Nicole Robinson of Oxon Hill, Md., testified that an employee of a business that did database work for her HMO obtained her Social Security number and birth date from her HMO file, then got credit cards in her name and used them to make $36,000 worth of purchases over three months — even after the fraud had been reported.
"This has impacted my life greatly. I received delinquent bills for purchases she had made. I spent countless hours on calls with creditors in Texas who were reluctant to believe that the accounts that had been opened were fraudulent," says Robinson, an information technician for a government contractor.
"This crime has impacted my ability to refinance my home, obtain a line of credit at my bank [and] get cellular phone service," she told the subcommittee last month. "Most importantly, this crime continues to give me constant anxiety.
"I had always been a person who kept my Social Security card under lock and key," Robinson added. "I never gave personal information over the phone, I always shredded and systematically discarded pre-approved credit applications and I checked my credit reports every year.
"I was not a likely victim. But since HMOs required my Social [Security number] and used it as an identification number, I was forced to be a victim."
-- (email@example.com), June 05, 2001
Not to worry. Soon we will have encoded chips implanted at birth. Everyone will be uniquely identified by a scanning device. We will be scanned from orbit so that everyone's location will be always available. Identity theft will be a thing of the past. Identity itself will be a thing of the past.
-- (Paracelsus@Pb.Au), June 05, 2001.