House panel votes to safeguard SSNs

Social Security Number Privacy and Identity Theft Prevention Act of 2007

The House Ways and Means Committee unanimously approved legislation that aims to reduce the use of Social Security numbers in the public and private sectors so they will be more difficult for identity thieves to steal. The Social Security Number Privacy and Identity Theft Prevention Act of 2007, passed July 18, next moves to the full House for consideration. It has not been scheduled yet.

Experts testified during 17 subcommittee hearings that the availability of SSNs in the public and private sectors, combined with the numbers’ widespread use as an identifier, makes it easier to commit identity theft. The bill would restrict the sale, purchase and public display of  SSNs by government and business to make them less accessible to identity thieves while providing exceptions for legitimate and necessary uses of the numbers.

“If we are serious about addressing this growing problem, we must stop giving access to our Social Security number to every Tom, Dick or Harry who seeks it,” said Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Michael McNulty (D-N.Y.), who introduced the bill along with subcommittee ranking member Sam Johnson (R-Texas). They introduced an amended version, which the committee subsequently approved, with Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and ranking member Jim McCrery (R-La.).

Among its provisions, the bill will prohibit federal, state and local governments from displaying SSNs to the general public on the Internet, on payment checks and accompanying documents, and on identification and Medicare cards. Public and private sectors will have to safeguards SSNs in their possession from unauthorized access by employees. If organizations truncate the number, they must use the last four digits and adhere to the permissible uses associated with the full number.

The National Research Council will conduct a study on the feasibility of prohibiting the use of SSNs as an authenticator.

Under the bill — if it becomes law — display, sale, purchase or misuse of SSNs could bring up to five years’ imprisonment and $250,000 in fines. Social Security Administration employees who fraudulently sell or transfer SSNs or Social Security cards would be subject to as much as 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

Victims of violations of the bill by federal agencies would gain limited legal recourse to stop an agency’s violation and recover actual damages they may have suffered. SSA, the Justice Department and state attorneys general would have enforcement authority under the bill.

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