Dozens Illegally Used Calif. Woman's ID
Sunday, June 18, 2006
DUBLIN, Calif. -- Audra Schmierer's Social Security number really gets around. It has been used by at least 81 people in 17 states, most of them probably illegal immigrants trying to get work.
The federal government took years to discover that the number was being used illegally, but authorities took little action even then.
"They knew what was happening but wouldn't do anything," said Schmierer, 33, a housewife in this San Francisco suburb. "One name, one number; why can't they just match it up?"
Her case is an example of an increasingly common problem: Many thieves are able to steal and use personal information because employers do not have to verify Social Security numbers or other documents submitted by job seekers.
The situation has long drawn fire from opponents of illegal immigration, but Congress has only recently moved to fix it. The House and Senate have passed immigration bills that call for employers to verify Social Security numbers in a national database.
Homeland Security officials have taken it a step further, calling on Congress to allow the Social Security Administration to share information with immigration-enforcement agents at work sites.
Under current law, if the Social Security Administration or the Internal Revenue Service finds multiple people using the same Social Security number, the agencies send letters informing employers of possible errors.
The IRS can fine employers $50 for each inaccurate number filed, a punishment that companies often dismiss as just another cost of doing business.
"Sending letters is the limit to what can be done," Social Security spokesman Lowell Kepke said. "We expect that will be able to fix any records that are incorrect."
The information on mismatched names is seldom shared with law enforcement agencies.
Schmierer realized she had a problem in February 2005, when she got a statement from the IRS saying she owed $15,813 in back taxes -- even though she had not worked since her son was born in 2000. Perhaps even more surprising, the taxes were due from jobs in Texas.
Schmierer called the IRS and learned that numerous people were using her Social Security number. Officials said that the erroneous balances would be eliminated but that the agency would have to correct the problem again in future years.
"They told me they couldn't do anything else," Schmierer said.
IRS officials declined to talk about Schmierer's case, citing privacy laws.
Schmierer obtained more than 200 W-2 and 1099 tax forms that contained her Social Security number but different names. She provided copies of the records to the Associated Press.
People from Florida to Washington state used her number to work at construction sites, fast-food restaurants and high-tech companies. Information gleaned from criminal investigations, tax documents and other sources suggested that most of the users were illegal immigrants.
Schmierer's number became so compromised that Social Security officials finally took a rare step used only in extreme cases: They gave her a new one.