By Bill Brubaker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
Colin L. Powell's Social Security number is out there. So is Troy Aikman's.
The "social" of Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D) is xxx-xx-xx34.
In an era when government officials from President Bush to local sheriffs warn of the growing dangers of identity theft, the full Social Security numbers of untold numbers of Americans can be found in file rooms and on Web sites run by, well, governments.
"This is very dangerous," Gansler said after learning that his number had been posted on a Maryland government records site. "You know, a Social Security number is really the fingerprint to somebody's identification."
The Federal Trade Commission has estimated that 8.3 million Americans were victims of identity theft in 2005, the most recent data available. But the crown jewel in identity theft -- the Social Security number -- can be mined easily in the government's own records, creating a measure of social insecurity for millions, identity experts say.
Social Security numbers are readily available in many courthouses -- in land records and criminal and civil case files -- as well as on many government Web sites that serve up public documents with a few clicks of a mouse. From state to state, and even within states, there is little uniformity in how access to the private information in these records is controlled.
A recent spot-check found the nine-digit numbers -- introduced in 1936 to track employee earnings and benefits -- on hundreds of land deeds, death certificates, traffic tickets, creditors' filings and other documents related to civil and criminal court cases.
Federal courts have banned the numbers from appearing on public documents since 2001. And in recent years, many jurisdictions, including Virginia, Maryland and the District, have enacted laws or made rules barring various types of personal information from being filed with courts or government agencies. Most court Web sites in the Washington region list partial Social Security numbers or none at all.
However, millions of paper records were filed across the United States before the laws and rules took effect. Generally, such records are not covered by the prohibitions. And court clerks said it would be virtually impossible to redact all of the Social Security numbers in them.
"That's just plain nutty," said Wendy Jones, former acting clerk of the Prince William County Circuit Court. "I mean, we're talking about hundreds and hundreds of thousands of files in our court alone."
In Loudoun County General District Court, Social Security numbers were found on documents filed in 38 of the 48 criminal cases heard by a judge on a recent day. The numbers were typed or written on summonses, arrest warrants, criminal complaints and jail commitment and release orders, among other documents.
"I don't like it. I don't like it at all," said the court's clerk, Judith S. Waddell. "Would you like your Social Security number being disclosed to the public? I know I wouldn't."
A one-hour search of Maryland's land records Web site found the Social Security numbers and signatures of two dozen property owners.
"It's alarming, because the government should be setting the example in really trying to protect people's private information," said state Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery). "Look, there's a whole criminal underground now that thrives on stealing people's credit cards and usurping their identity for as long as they can."
A 15-minute search on the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation Web site found Social Security numbers on statements filed by creditors who had financed purchases by four consumers in Waldorf, Cambridge, Bowie and Landover in 2003 and 2004.
A dozen more numbers, including former secretary of state Powell's, turned up on a Fairfax County site that requires a $25 monthly subscription fee. Powell, in an e-mail, declined to comment.
A Texas land records site had the Social Security number of Aikman, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback. Aikman, a Fox Sports analyst, declined through a Fox spokesman to comment.
Although it's rare to find the numbers in new criminal court filings in Maryland and the District, they often appear on summonses and arrest warrants in Virginia.
Typical is the Nov. 13 summons issued to a Sterling woman charged with failing to register her dog, a gray Shih Tzu named Puzzle, which had been declared dangerous. In addition to her name and Social Security number, the one-page document -- filed in Loudoun General District Court -- listed her home address, birth date, race, driver's license number, eye and hair color, height and weight.
"With that information, an identity thief could open up new accounts in her name," said Betsy Broder, an identity fraud expert with the Federal Trade Commission, "because the identity thief has virtually all the information that he or she needs to open up a credit card account, seek employment if they don't have legal status in this country, apply for a driver's license or, if they are arrested for some crime, use this other person's identity as their own."
The Social Security number of another Loudoun defendant, charged with stealing a mountain bike and then failing to appear in court, was found on seven documents in his case file.
"This is an issue the General Assembly needs to look at," said Loudoun Circuit Court Clerk Gary M. Clemens, president of the Virginia Court Clerks' Association.
Identity fraud has been around for centuries. But widespread use of credit cards and the growth of the Internet have fueled a plague that costs businesses and consumers billions of dollars a year.
The problem took a giant leap in the public consciousness after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when it was revealed that several hijackers had used fraudulently obtained IDs to open bank accounts, rent apartments and board planes.
The federal government responded with a law in 2004 that mandated prison sentences for people who use identity theft to commit other crimes and prohibited Social Security numbers from being displayed on newly issued driver's licenses. A presidential task force called on federal agencies last spring to "reduce the unnecessary use" of Social Security numbers, which it called "the most valuable commodity for an identity thief."
But with a few keystrokes, anybody can view the deed to Jamie and Sarah Raskin's house in Takoma Park.
The state senator said that when he refinanced the house in 1994, he gave no thought to the two Social Security numbers printed near the bottom of his property deed. But in March, he received a call from Betty "B.J." Ostergren, an activist from central Virginia who pushes lawmakers and government agencies to take sensitive personal data off state-run Web sites.
"She said, 'Do you know I was able to find your Social Security number and other private information about you and your wife online?' " Raskin said. "I was shocked, and I briefly flipped out, because, you know, these are days when everybody's privacy is under assault."
Ostergren's site, http://thevirginiawatchdog.com, offers dozens of examples of public figures whose Social Security numbers have appeared in public records in recent years. They include former CIA director Porter J. Goss, former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R) and former Virginia attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore (R).
"The government loves to spoon-feed criminals by putting these dern records on their Web sites," Ostergren said.
Raskin said he plans to call for legislation that would give Maryland residents the right to request redaction of their Social Security numbers from public records.
"The public certainly has the right to know who owns a particular property," he said. "But I don't think the public has the right to know what that person's Social Security number is."
Gansler cracked a joke when he learned recently that his number appeared on a real estate document he had signed in 1996.
"You can steal all of my money that you want. I don't have any," he said.
Then he turned serious.
"Our laws need to be tightened up," he said. "There's no legitimate reason why somebody should be able to surf the Internet and gain another person's Social Security number."