SSA moves to curb identity theft epidemic
- By Judi Hasson
- Oct 29, 2000
A virtual epidemic of identity theft is spreading across America, with criminals
ripping off Social Security numbers and using them to get financial documents,
according to the Social Security Administration's inspector general, James
At an Oct. 25 SSA conference on identity theft, Huse said the Digital
Age has spurred a dramatic increase in the number of people obtaining fraudulent
Social Security numbers. In 1998, more than 11,000 Social Security numbers
were illegally obtained, a number that soared to more than 30,000 last year.
To try to fix the problem, SSA will launch a pilot project early next
year to crack down on phony birth certificates by using technology to verify
a person's citizenship before issuing a Social Security number.
William Halter, deputy SSA commissioner for electronic services, said
the project is part of a series of new initiatives to stem the epidemic.
"Identity theft is growing, and we are committed to fixing it," Halter said
at the conference.
Until now, a person could easily show up at any SSA field office with
a tattered — but legal — copy of a birth certificate from another state,
and local officials had no way of verifying whether the document was legitimate
or in the possession of the right person.
To combat that situation, Huse said SSA is developing software that
will enable field offices to check states' vital statistics departments
swiftly and electronically. The pilot begins in January, and the localities
involved will be announced at a future date.
The agency has several other initiatives in the works. In collaboration
with the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the State Department,
SSA is moving to issue Social Security numbers more quickly to legal immigrants.
Beginning next year, when a person applies for a visa in his or her
native country, State will transfer the data electronically to INS. When
the foreign national enters the United States, the entry will be sent to
SSA for processing.
"The person can expect to have [a Social Security] number in hand within
three weeks after entering the country," SSA spokeswoman Carolyn Chee-zum
Despite those electronic advances, public officials and private-industry
leaders say the problem is far from solved. Bills are pending in Congress
that would make identity theft a felony and prohibit merchants from requiring
Social Secu-rity numbers as part of a financial transaction. But none of
the legislation is expected to be acted on this year.
Private industry is beginning to offer help for consumers, such as monitoring
credit reports to ensure that there has been no unauthorized use of an individual's
credit. But a crackdown on the use of Social Security numbers is sure to
encounter some opposition from business.
"Everything we do in the financial marketplace is based on Social Security
numbers," said Don Binns, director of Privista Inc., which markets a product
to monitor consumers' credit files. "I don't know how you change the underpinnings
of that system."