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Social Security Numbers Have Morphed Into Identity Theft Vehicles

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Originally created to track earnings to determine eligibility for Social Security benefits, Social Security numbers are now “widely used as personal identifiers,” creating a troublesome identity theft problem, Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, said during a mid-May hearing called “Securing Americans’ Identities: The Future of the Social Security Number.”

During the May 17 hearing held by the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, which is chaired by Johnson, the Texas congressman stated that the risk of identity theft “goes far beyond” the Social Security card being stolen. “Every medical record at nursing homes, hospitals and doctor offices has a Social Security number written on it. The wholesale amount of Social Security numbers that are available to identity thieves is staggering and completely unnecessary.”

Indeed, Theresa Gruber, assistant deputy commissioner at the Social Security Administration, told the lawmakers during her testimony that the Social Security Card “was never intended, and does not serve, as a personal identification document.”

That being said, “unscrupulous individuals use the SSN to steal identities and obtain false identification documents.”

The Social Security Administration, Gruber said, is “always looking for ways to improve the security and efficiency of our records” and intends to “expand the pool of nine‑digit numbers available for assignment.”

This summer, she continued, the SSA plans to implement “a new assignment methodology called ‘SSN randomization,’” which will “help protect the Social Security number by eliminating any geographic significance in the number, and making it more difficult to reconstruct an SSN using public information.”

As a result, Gruber added, “the new process will also extend the pool of SSNs available for assignment nationwide.”

Johnson noted that Congress “needs to get to work on identity theft and limiting access to Social Security numbers” and reintroduced the same day the Medicare Identity Theft Prevention Act, which removes the Social Security number from the Medicare card.

“It makes no sense that people are told, ‘Don’t carry your Social Security card in order to protect your identity,’ but then every senior citizen is told, ‘Carry your Medicare card,’ which displays prominently the Social Security number.”

Jeremey Grant, managing director of Technology Business Strategy at the law firm Venable LLP, told the lawmakers that the government must recognize the contradiction surrounding Social Security numbers and “take steps to put policies in place that are more consistent and put us on a path toward a system that enhances security and privacy and convenience for Americans.”

The SSN “is simultaneously presumed to be both secret and public — secret, because we tell individuals to guard their SSN closely; public, because we have multiple laws that require individuals to give it out to facilitate all sorts of interactions with industry and government,” Grant said.

“Secret because we then tell those entities to ensure that if they store it, which the law often requires them to do, that it be protected,” he continued. “And public because it’s proven quite hard to do to the point that the majority of Americans’ SSNs have been compromised multiple times over the last several years amidst the wave of data breaches.”


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