SSA moves to curb identity theft epidemic

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

Huse Jr.

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

said.

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."

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