Utah moves to protect its own against identity theft

The state will be the first in recent years to notify residents of the misuse of their Social Security numbers.

In a rare move, a state attorney general plans to begin notifying thousands of residents whom it suspects have had their Social Security numbers misused by undocumented job applicants.

This week, Utah's top law enforcement office will send out a first batch of letters based on data collected for state public-assistance programs. It is sending only 100 letters for now – out of a potential 20,000 – for fear of being overwhelmed by upset citizens seeking help.

In January, Utah took the unique step of changing its laws to specifically allow this notification, in response to high-profile reports of a growing number of children's Social Security numbers being compromised. This is the first such state law in the US in recent years.

Laws and incomplete data hinder most states and the federal Social Security Administration from informing citizens of anomalies with their Social Security numbers. Common red flags: people with multiple names filing wages under the same number, and young children showing wage earnings.

The system's enforced silence irks some officials concerned with the proliferating mess caused by identity theft. But at the federal level the issue is tangled up with the emotionally charged paralysis over illegal immigration.

"I really am plenty upset at the US government for having put the states in the position of having to deal with all these problems when it's really a federal issue," says Utah's assistant attorney general Richard Hamp, who spearheaded Utah's effort to bring transparency to those databases the state controls. "Why wasn't the federal government either enforcing the border-crossing laws or giving out workforce numbers so you didn't compound the problems with the Social Security numbers?"

According to Mr. Hamp, data from the federal Social Security Administration (SSA) showed in 2000 that some 132,000 Utahns had compromised numbers. State officials, however, don't have a full data set to work with, and so instead have looked at public-assistance rolls kept by the state's Department of Workforce Services.

A USEFUL NUMBER

Whether this form of identity theft poses much danger is a matter of debate given the lack of data. Many undocumented workers could use someone else's Social Security number to fill out a job form – and nothing more. The concern, however, is that more illegal workers will begin to use the number for credit applications, mortgages, and other purposes as they put down roots here..

At the very least, the workplace records wind up on victims' credit reports, and they may also be cross-pollinating hospital and criminal justice databases, says Hamp.

"It isn't just a work issue. It's a financial issue, it's becoming a medical issue, and it's becoming a 'do you want to spend a night in jail because of somebody else's warrant' issue. The ripples are becoming waves," Hamp says.

The consequences have not been quite so dramatic for three Utah victims contacted for this article.

Kyle McOmber and Dain Berrett, both students at Brigham Young University in Provo, each learned from employers' background checks that someone was using their numbers. It's common, Mr. McOmber's new boss told him, for undocumented workers to know the first three digits assigned by the state and to guess at the rest.

"I was just kind of shocked that it could happen so easily," says McOmber. His next surprise: His doppelganger, a man in Texas with a Hispanic last name, had been using the number since 1997, when McOmber was a minor. "I had tons of jobs after that."

"It seemed like it was something I could take care of easily. But it's been kind of frustrating actually," he adds, estimating that he's spent 10 hours waiting in lines, calling, and faxing paperwork to credit agencies.

Fifteen months later he still hasn't been able to clear his record and put a freeze on any credit applications by the Texas man. So far, however, the number has been misused only for jobs.

For his part, Mr. Berrett had to send copies of his identification to the SSA; the matter was cleared in three weeks. "I understand that it wasn't the Social Security Administration's fault, but it just kind of bugged me that someone could randomly take my number and do anything with it. I just wish he had to do some verification instead, not me."

A third Utah man applied for public assistance for his family only to be told his household income exceeded the limit because wages were being reported on his child's number. The father refuses to be identified because of his sympathy for illegal immigrants.

McOmber, who spent two years in Guatemala on a Mormon mission, has seen the hardships that drive people to the US. "I love Latin Americans, but it's not fair to come in illegally and do that kind of thing. I'm all for people coming in legally."

IF NAMES DON'T MATCH NUMBERS

The SSA says it has $585 billion in wages placed in "suspense files." These are wages reported from the Internal Revenue Service on a W-2 form that shows a mismatch between name and number stored in its database. The SSA notifies the person on the W-2 – usually the perpetrator – if it's a case of ID theft.

Why not notify the person in the database who may be a victim?

"There is an IRS ruling that Social Security can't share that info we get from them with anybody else," says Dorothy Clark, a SSA spokeswoman. She adds that the agency often doesn't have a current address for the person in the database, nor can it determine citizenship status.

While Congress recently has held hearings on expanding tougher identity verification procedures by employers, that partial solution is a proxy for the illegal immigration fight, drowning out the ID theft issue, says a congressional staffer.

Hamp says Utah's Department of Workforce Services found that 20,025 Social Security numbers are being used by two or more individuals with different surnames. It found 606 children under 13 in its database who were showing earnings. The children drew national headlines, building momentum for the new notification law.

Heather Morton, an analyst in the National Council of State Legislatures who has been following the flurry of Social Security number legislation, says she knows of no other law that allows a state to notify individuals when their Social Security numbers have been compromised.

Utah officials say they will carefully gauge the response from the 100 letters. The letter directs recipients to a new website (www.idtheft.utah.gov) for assistance in reporting ID theft. The pace of subsequent mailings will depend on how well that system works, say Utah officials.

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