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Net Aids Access to Sensitive ID Data

Social Security Numbers Are Widely Available

By Jonathan Krim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 4, 2005; Page A01

Want someone else's Social Security number?

It's $35 at www.secret-info.com. It's $45 at www.Iinfosearch.com, where users can also sign up for a report containing an individual's credit-card charges, as well as an e-mail with other "tips, secrets & spy info!" The Web site Gum-shoes.com promises that "if the information is out there, our licensed investigators can find it."

Although Social Security numbers are one of the most powerful pieces of personal information an identity thief can possess, they remain widely available and inexpensive despite public outcry and the threat of a congressional crackdown after breaches at large information brokers.

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Keeping Social Security Numbers Safe Although Social Security numbers are used by businesses throughout the economy, privacy advocates recommend that individuals take several steps to limit the distribution of their numbers.
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Brokers such as ChoicePoint Inc. and LexisNexis have pledged to restrict the availability of such data after personal information on more than 175,000 people was purloined from the two firms by identity thieves posing as legitimate businessmen.

So far, neither those moves nor revelations of a series of breaches at major banks and universities has curbed a multi-tiered and sometimes shadowy marketplace of selling and re-selling personal data that is vulnerable to similar fraud.

A simple Internet search yields more than a dozen Web sites offering an array of personal data.

Some are run by small data brokers and other re-sellers. Others are run by private investigators, many of whom have complained that recently announced restrictions on the availability of Social Security numbers would hurt their ability to assist law-enforcement, track down deadbeat dads or locate witnesses.

Yet with only scant checks to verify whether someone requesting data is legitimate, several sites sell full Social Security numbers, potentially contributing to an epidemic of identity theft or fraud that touched about 10 million Americans in the past year.

No law prohibits the sale of Social Security numbers, but privacy experts and some government agencies have warned for years that the number is over-used and under-protected.

Inaugurated in 1936, the nine-digit number was intended to match citizens to the retirement money they would eventually receive. Over time, the number became essential for getting or verifying credit and for employment background checks.

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