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Online Records May Aid ID Theft

Government Sites Post Personal Data

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 2, 2008; Page A01

Colin L. Powell's Social Security number is out there. So is Troy Aikman's.

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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.

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