Identity thieves can snare Social Security numbers from a potpourri of public records, especially those maintained by state and local governments, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office.
The report, released yesterday, found that the nine-digit numbers -- commonly needed to get a job, collect Social Security and other federal government benefits, and do business with banks and credit card companies -- are accessible in some public records held by 41 states and the District of Columbia.
Moreover, more than 75 percent of counties, representing about 94 percent of the U.S. population, collect at least one public record that shows Social Security numbers, the report found.
Records maintained by federal agencies are a different story. Under the Privacy Act of 1974, Social Security numbers on records held by executive branch agencies are protected and therefore are not generally available to the public. The numbers do appear on 42 million Medicare cards, however.
Millions of federal employees are at risk of having their Social Security numbers exposed because the numbers appear on identity cards issued by their agencies and on federal employee health insurance cards. Such cards often must be carried and displayed, increasing the chances they will be lost, stolen or seen by prying eyes.
Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.), the author of a bill that would impose new restrictions on the use of Social Security numbers, including banning their display on government ID cards, said the report confirms the horror stories Congress has heard about the ease of obtaining the numbers. Shaw requested the GAO study.
"These things are posted all over the place, and it's a huge problem with identity theft," said Shaw, whose bill has not been voted out of the House Judiciary Committee. "Hopefully this will help us. The more attention we bring to this matter, the more pressure there will be for the Congress to limit the use of it further."
Most government entities say they collect Social Security numbers to help them verify a person's identity or track related records. Most often they are found in court and property records, the report said. No single federal law governs the handling of Social Security numbers at all levels of government, and state laws vary.
While paper copies are the most common way Social Security numbers in records are available for public review, at the state level many documents are stored electronically and at the local level microfiche and microfilm are still used. Only a few records containing Social Security numbers are maintained by states on the Internet, the report found. But records controlled by local governments in as many as 28 percent of counties make Social Security numbers available that way.
The Office of Personnel Management and the two largest federal departments, Defense and Veterans Affairs, are moving to eliminate Social Security numbers from some employee ID cards and health insurance cards. By the end of 2005, for instance, only 3.7 percent of all subscribers to the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program will have their Social Security numbers on their health insurance cards, OPM Director Kay Coles James wrote to the GAO on Oct. 4.
The report also recommends that the Office of Management and Budget craft a government-wide policy to forge a consistent approach to the display of such numbers on government-issued cards.