Social Security Fraud

Voice Card  -  Volume 22  -  Paul Card Number 8  -  Thu, Oct 31, 1991 9:48 PM

{contributed by Peter G. Neumann to RISKS-FORUM Digest V12 : I20}

Copyright San Francisco Chronicle, 30 August 1991.

Thieves Hit Social Security Numbers
Fouled-Up Benefits and Credits

By Yasmin Anwar, Chronicle Staff Writer

Debbie Biner knew something was wrong when the Internal Revenue Service demanded back taxes for a job she never had. Then her boss accused her of falsely claiming unemployment. Bewildered, the 36-year-old Moraga woman set out on a two-year investigative trail that led her to a bizarre discovery - 12 people from as far away as Virginia had been using her Social Security number. "I've never been late on a payment in my life," she said. "Who knows what people are doing with my number?"

Biner is among a growing number of victims stung by Social Security number theft, a crime that can take years to detect. Most often, the felony reveals itself in fouled-up tax records or muddled credit reports. Occasionally, major embezzlement is involved. "Someone can take your number, get a credit card, charge it to the limit and vanish," said Steven Gruel, an assistant U.S. attorney and former immigration fraud prosecutor.

Although many consumers go to great lengths to safeguard their credit-card numbers - cutting up expired plastic and tearing up carbon receipts - few realize the dangers of a Social Security number in the wrong hands. In this computer age, where extensive records on a person's background are just a keystroke away, the importance of protecting Social Security numbers is magnified. "If a private eye wants to find somebody, a Social Security number is all he needs," said attorney Fred Gross.

So far this year, 550 people have been convicted of felonies for stealing, selling or using bogus Social Security numbers - compared with 468 convictions for all of 1989, and 390 in 1988. And federal authorities figure the convictions reflect just a fraction of the problem. "It's rampant. But the (Social Security) system isn't set up to detect fraud," Gruel said. "You don't know people are using your number unless you try to take out a home loan and your credit file is flagged."

Examples of fraud:

* Joelle Robert, a waitress at San Francisco's Meridien Hotel, could not figure out how someone opened 16 credit cards in her name - then ran up $10,000 in charges. Eventually, Robert learned that someone she considered a friend had been using her Social Security number. "I don't understand why credit companies don't ask for more IDs when they give people cards," Robert said.

* A Martinez woman trying to claim unemployment last year was told by the state Employment Development Department that five people using her number had already beaten her to it. The woman, who asked not to be identified, said she gave up trying to claim benefits.

* Lizabeth Stephens, a.k.a. Elizabeth Ann Borruso, used eight Social Security numbers and six names last year to open accounts throughout Northern California at Citibank. Security Pacific and Great Western Savings. She obtained an Army civilian identification card under a false number and name. Currently in jail awaiting sentencing, she faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Experts attribute the increasing abuse of Social Security numbers to two main factors: undocumented immigrants seeking work in the United States and the business world's increasing use of the number as a universal ID. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act - designed to ontrol immigration and tighten restrictions on illegal workers - ended up fueling a black market in phony IDs, which contain Social Security numbers. Illegal immigrants, who now need to present more IDs when they apply for a job, can buy fake green cards and numbers from street corners and stores for as little as $30. "We created an industry," said Philip Waters, deputy district director for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, who estimates there are 50,000 identification counterfeiters operating in the United States. Immigration fraud investigators say they seldom pursue workers who have used bogus identifications. "We get the manufacturers and vendors. The bigger the better," Waters said.

Uses of the Number

Social Security numbers can be misused in many ways. The computer age has allowed businesses and government agencies to compile extensive and centralized records on Americans. And a Social Security number unlocks that information.

By tapping into computer systems, enterprises as diverse as insurance companies, police departments, hospitals, grocery stores and colleges can dig up details on individuals ranging from unpaid medical bills to cocaine convictions.

"The number is information fly paper. It's basically one step short of putting a bar code on everyone's forehead," said attorney Mark Rotenberg, a former adviser to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Shaky Legal Ground

By law, the only agencies that can demand a Social Security number are the Social Security Administration, the IRS, employers, banks and the military. Other agencies such as credit bureaus, insurance companies, police departments and hospitals have no legal authority to request it. Yet businesses routinely obtain customers' Social Security numbers because people give them out on applications.

"I personally protect my number like it's gold. I keep it locked up in a safe deposit box," said IRS spokesman Larry Wright. "If they choose to deny me the credit card, I don't care. I'll go somewhere else."

The 1974 Privacy Act prohibits government agencies from giving out information from individuals' files. Citing the act, Peter Zilahy Ingerman, a New Jersey computer scientist, sued the IRS for displaying taxpayer Social Security numbers on income tax form envelopes. The case is pending in U.S. District Court in New Jersey.

Seeking the Culprits

As Debbie Biner's case illustrates, the search for a number thief can be time-consuming and complex. Biner said government agencies offered no help. "It was so frustrating. Everyone kept telling me my case was out of their jurisdiction." she said. So Biner asked Transunion, the nation's largest credit bureau, to run her number through a tracing system to determine who was using her nine-digit identifier.

Slowing the Number Flow

In Washington, D.C., privacy rights advocates and watchdog groups such as Computer Professionals for Social Responsibillty are lobbying Congress to write stricter Social Security laws. They are pushing for a legal guarantee that would state, "No person shall be denied credit, employment or the opportunity to engage in a commercial transaction for failure to provide his or her Social Security number."

Meanwhile, Biner sits in her Moraga apartment, as her 6- and 7-year-old children play, and writes letters. Fraud investigators have advised her to contact the IRS, the Employment Development Department, various collection agencies, banks, department store and furniture stores where her number mates are doing business. "My name is Debbie Biner," she writes. "I am the original owner of the following Social Security number. Please remove the following 12 names and their attached transaction records from my files."