Wednesday, July 18, 2007
The Widespread Availability of Social Security Numbers
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Legislation approved by the House Ways and Means Committee today will help protect consumers by making it more difficult for crooks to gain access to social security numbers, one of the key pieces of information used to commit identity theft. With bipartisan support, the Committee unanimously approved H.R. 3046, which restricts the sale, purchase, and display of social security numbers.
“Social security numbers are the key used by crooks to unlock consumers’ financial identities and commit fraud,” said Jeannine Kenney, senior policy analyst with Consumers Union. “This legislation will go a long way toward curbing identity theft by getting social security numbers off the internet, out of the mail, and out of our wallets.”
Social security numbers are bought and sold by businesses for both legitimate and suspect purposes. They are commonly used by businesses to identify individuals and to verify identities and are easily found on the internet, in public records, on identification cards, and in mail solicitations. The widespread availability of social security numbers has made it easier for crooks to access them and contributes to the estimated 10 million cases of identity theft yearly.
H.R. 3046 protects consumers by:
• Prohibiting government agencies and businesses from displaying social security numbers on the internet, checks, employee ID or benefit cards, student ID cards, patient cards (including Medicare cards), and on any other card used to access goods, services, or benefits.
• Prohibiting the sale or purchase of social security numbers with limited and carefully crafted exceptions, such as protecting public health and safety and legitimate business needs connected to consumer credit reports.
The bill does not preclude businesses from using social security numbers for identification, authentication, fraud prevention or detection so long as they are not selling or buying the numbers.
Kenney applauded the Committee for resisting calls by data brokers, financial services providers and retailers for vague exceptions to the bill's key protections that threaten the effectiveness of the legislation.
"Those who profit from the unnecessary and widespread commercial trade in consumers' most sensitive information want legislation that blesses 'business-as-usual,'" said Kenney. "The Committee should be commended for recognizing these attempts for what they are ― an effort to protect the very practices that contribute to identity theft."
As amended by the Committee, the bill allows businesses to continue engaging in the prohibited activities for two years after regulations are issued as long as they truncate all but the last four digits of the social security number. Since the regulations won’t go into effect until two and a half years after the bill is enacted, the law won’t be fully implemented for more than four years.
“Lawmakers should be applauded for supporting these common sense restrictions on the use of social security numbers, but there is no reason to delay fully implementing these reforms,” said Kenney.
In a letter of support sent to the Committee yesterday, consumer groups urged lawmakers to further improve the bill by ensuring that consumers are not misled into consenting to the sale or purchase of their social security numbers and to modify the bill's directive that a uniform truncation standard to be developed by regulators include no more than the last four digits of the social security number.
"Displaying the last four digits of the social security number leave consumers vulnerable to identity theft because these are the only digits that are unique to an individual," Kenney said. "If anything, the standard should preclude use of the full last four digits."
A letter in support of H.R. 3046 by Consumers Union, Consumer Federation of America, and U.S. PIRG can be found online at http://www.consumersunion.org/pdf/SSN-ltr07.pdf
Jeannine Kenney: 202-238-9249
Gail Hillebrand: 415-431-6747