Legislation Addresses Illegal Use of Social Security Numbers

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Two House Ways and Means Committee members plan to reintroduce a bill to restrict the availability and use of Social Security numbers, hoping the effort will reduce identity theft. Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman E. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., announced at a July 11 hearing that he and subcommittee ranking member Robert Matsui, D-Calif., plan to unveil legislation to restrict the sale and public display of Social Security numbers, establish penalties for violations, limit dissemination of numbers by credit reporting agencies, make it more difficult for businesses to deny services if a customer refuses to provide their number, and improve the integrity of the Social Security number assignment process. “Congress must act this session to protect the very number it requires each of us to obtain and use throughout our lifetime,” said Shaw.

“We want to move forward as quickly as possibly in a bipartisan way in order to try to help our people against this growing element of crime,” said Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Md., sitting in for Matsui, who was unable to attend the hearing.

Meanwhile, the Social Security Administration (SSA) asked the lawmakers for new legislation to stop the misuse of citizens' numbers. James G. Huse, Jr., SSA Inspector General, asked for legislation to limit the use of the number on public documents. He also asked for legislation to allow the IG to disclose a terrorist suspect’s information with law enforcement partners without formal authorization by the commissioner. “When lives are at stake we cannot waste precious moments in order to sustain some bureaucratic modality.”

Huse also asked for laws to curtail the use of the numbers by private business that could use other identifiers. “The use of the SSN as a student or patient identification number, as part of a car rental contract or to rent a video, must be curtailed,” he said.

Another problem is that the SSA sometimes issues to cards to ineligible people, said Barbara Bovbjerg, General Accounting Office (GAO) director of education, workforce, and income security. She said the office has found that of the 18 million Social Security cards issued in 2002, 12.4 million -- nearly 70 percent -- were replacement cards, which can be obtained by citizens with less documentation. While non-citizens must present the same ID to obtain both new cards and replacements, citizens can use documents such as health insurance cards and church membership to obtain replacements. Individuals can get up to 52 replacement cards per week, she noted. “The ease of obtaining replacements creates the potential that these cards can be accumulated and sold to those not eligible for their own cards. This is an obvious vulnerability that needs to be controlled.”

As an experiment, GAO obtained a Social Security card for a child that does not exist, using documents it created using widely available software, Bovbjerg said. GAO also obtained fake drivers’ licenses using the SSN of deceased persons, she said. A report on the topic in September will include recommendations on ways to improve the SSN verification system, she noted.

Identity thieves often use Social Security to establish fake citizenship and apply for false credit. Bovbjerg said an ID thief was recently arrested for possessing stolen Social Security numbers and babies’ footprints, ostensibly with the intention of selling the information to other thieves.



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