Social Security number thefts


NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Thursday, June 7th, 2018.

Glad to have you along for today’s episode of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. You probably know you are supposed to protect the privacy of your social security number. But one disturbing estimate shows hackers have stolen 60 to 80 percent of active Social Security numbers. If yours hasn’t been— that puts you in the happy minority.

EICHER: Lawmakers are trying to find some way to shield Americans from identity theft and preserve the integrity of the Social Security system.

WORLD Radio’s Jim Henry has our story.

SOCIAL SECURITY SCAM: Hello, this is the Social Security Administration. Your Social Security number is suspended due to some reason. Call us back at 254-863-8099. 

JIM HENRY, REPORTER: An all-too-common Social Security scam call. Those who were fooled or frightened into calling back were asked to give their Social Security number for verification purposes, and immediately fell victim to identity theft. 

But scams like this—while prevalent—represent only a tiny fraction of credit card number thefts. Recent data breaches at the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management and the credit reporting agency Equifax, alone, reaped more than 165 million Social Security numbers. 

Sam Lester with the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center recently testified on Capitol Hill— 

LESTER: SSNs are the keys to the kingdom for identity thieves. A criminal in possession of your SSN can file fraudulent taxes in your name, open new accounts in your name, take out lines of credit and many other forms of fraud.

Lester said the Social Security number was never meant to be an all-purpose identifier in the private sector. But because it became that, it’s now the single greatest threat to privacy today. 

LESTER: When it was first introduced in 1936, it was to be used only for the administration of Social Security taxes. The fact that it is now so pervasive as both an identifier and authenticator, a user name and a password, has undoubtedly contributed to the alarming rise in data breaches, identity theft and financial fraud.

The digital age has increased the threat of identity theft exponentially—with tens of millions of Social Security numbers stored in vulnerable databases. Plus, the use of all or part of a Social Security number to authenticate someone’s identity online further increases black market value of stolen numbers. 

ROSENZWEIG: Using my Social Security number as an authenticator is as stupid as using the last four letters of my last name. 

Former Homeland Security Deputy Assistant Secretary Paul Rosenzweig. He’s now with the R Street Institute, a free market think tank. Rosenzweig said new government regulations and free market solutions will likely solve the problem eventually, but would be too slow to protect millions of Americans now at risk for identity theft.

Rosenzweig suggested instead a bold step the government could take: dramatically devalue stolen Social Security numbers. 

ROSENZWEIG: Simply publish a phone book with every citizen’s Social Security number in it. In other words, by publishing it publicly, we would make it impossible for any enterprise to continue to legitimately use it as an authenticator of identity.

That would deny thieves the ability to use a stolen number to get into one’s private accounts, but it wouldn’t eliminate all identity theft.

How then to protect your Social Security number from more garden variety identity thieves using it to open fraudulent accounts in your name? 

James Lewis with the Center for Strategic and International Studies has an idea. He said the Social Security Administration could adopt something widely used by private industry, the smart card with an embedded chip.

LEWIS: Millions of commercial transactions are carried out with these cards every day. When your credit card is stolen, your financial institution cancels the old one and issues you a new one, issues you a new number. You’re still linked to your account, but you’re not linked to the old number and a similar approach might help us streamline, modernize and make the Social Security number more secure.

Lewis said other countries are already using smart cards to administer government benefits. 

The Social Security program may have been innovative more than 80 years ago, but lawmakers and experts agree the system is archaic by modern standards.

They also agree that solving the crisis of Social Security-related identity theft will require a multi-faceted approach by government and private industry.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Jim Henry.


(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File) In this Jan. 11, 2013 file photo, the Social Security Administration’s main campus is seen in Woodlawn, Md. Medicare’s financial problems have gotten worse, and Social Security’s can’t be ignored forever. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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