Video: Immigration and ID theft

By Bob Sullivan Technology correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 4/4/2006 7:04:50 PM ET 2006-04-04T23:04:50

In the noisy immigration debate raging in Washington, there is one voice NOT being heard: The voice of identity theft victims. 

Behind many of the nation’s millions of undocumented workers are someone else's documents. To get a job, illegal immigrants need a Social Security number, and they often borrow one.  As victim Melody Millet is fond of saying, U.S. citizens are being forced to share their identities with undocumented immigrants to give corporate America a steady supply of cheap labor.

Thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Americans are right now sharing their identities with immigrants and don't know it. It is the dirty little secret of the immigration issue: By not dealing directly with the undocumented worker situation, the U.S government is actually encouraging identity theft.  In fact, one can argue that the origins of the identity theft epidemic can be traced to the immigration issue.

The scope of this problem is vast.  Every year, nearly 9 million people pay their taxes using the wrong Social Security number. The name used on W-2 tax forms used by employers doesn't match the name on file with the Social Security Administration.  There can be many reasons why -- a data entry typo by a human resources department, a woman changes her name after marriage and forgets to report it, or a man uses someone else's SSN to get a job. 

Social Security calls this a "no-match" situation.  When this happens, the Social Security Administration collects the money, but the wage credits go into limbo. They don't end up on anyone's annual Social Security statement, they end up in something called the Earnings Suspense File.  Since 1984, when the Social Security card employment verification requirement kicked in, nearly $500 billion in wages has ended up in that file. 

Who are all these people paying their taxes using the wrong SSN? Neither Social Security nor the IRS has ever studied this issue in great detail. But there are clear indications that many -- if not most -- of the 9 million mismatches are immigrants using the wrong SSN. One study by Social Security indicates no-match payments come most frequently from agricultural and restaurant industries, for example.

Not every mismatched SSN belongs to a real living person, and in fact, it appears many are chosen at random. Some belong to the deceased; others are entirely fictitious. One study showed thousands of entries using obvious fakes, such as 123-45-6789 or 999-99-9999.

Many victims are very real
But many victims are very real.  Recently, officials in Utah matched a database of children receiving welfare benefits with a database of workers paying state taxes and found 1,800 child victims.  It’s impossible to know how many of the impostors were undocumented workers, but Utah Assistant Attorney General Rich Hamp says that behind most cases the agency has prosecuted so far, he’s found an immigrant using someone else’s papers.

Victims often don't have any idea they’re sharing their identity with an immigrant, because there's no way to find out.  Social Security won't tell you if someone else is using your SSN. The extra earnings don't end up on your annual Social Security statement, because they are designated to the Earnings Suspense File instead. Ditto for the Internal Revenue Service.  The misuse isn't revealed in personal credit reports, either.  If somebody uses your number to get a credit card or car loan, the nation's credit bureaus create a new credit file instead of alerting you to the misuse.

Victims only find out when something goes wrong -- when there are unpaid taxes or unpaid bills, debt collectors often track down the original SSN holder.

But there are sometimes hints along the way.

SSN-only ID theft victim Margaret Harrison was once denied unemployment because records showed she had a job.  Harrison was in West Virginia -- her Social Security number was working on a farm in Washington state.  She couldn't prove her problem until recently, however, when she received a debit card with her impostor's picture on it. 

The immigration issue is an incredibly complex mine field of competing emotional issues. There are sloganeering and extremism on both sides.  There will be no kicking out every undocumented worker; and there will be no letting everyone in right away.  People who insist on either are naive, foolish or both.  There will be hard decisions and heartbreaks. This column does not suggest there is a simple answer.

And it also does not blame the immigrants, who are simply following the real-life rules they’ve been given.  Want a job?  Want to feed your family, want a better life for your kids?  Just get a nine-digit number. The message has been clear from our government and our corporations for 20 years -- no one cares whose nine-digit number you use.

Plenty of blame to go around
The blame lies on us all for not dealing with the situation directly, and instead encouraging under-the-table activity. There are millions of victims on all sides -- including the innocent bystanders who must share their Social Security numbers.

This is what happens when an extra-legal system is in place.  Today, there are no rules, which clearly encourages this sharing of Social Security numbers. It encourages the cottage industry that is document forgery. And ultimately, it encourages identity theft.

While consumers cannot learn the secret life of their Social Security numbers, several groups know all about it. The nation’s credit bureaus, for example, can sort their data by number instead of name. 

Lenders routinely buy this information when assessing a consumer's credit risk.  Every time MSNBC.com covers this issue, workers at car dealers and banks write in to say they’ve seen countless examples of consumers who apply for accounts and have multiple names connected to their Social Security numbers.  Privacy rules prevent them from warning the consumers.

And of course, any agency that collects taxes, such as Social Security or the IRS, has this information.

It would certainly be possible for any of these groups to inform those who are sharing SSNs, but a serious attempt has never been made.  Why? I suspect that doing so would personalize the immigration debate and might very well lead to a true flash point for the issue. 

Three years ago, Social Security did the next-best thing, sending letters to some employers with large lists of people paying taxes using the wrong SSN.  As workers scattered, seeing the letters as tantamount to a deportation notice, immigration rights groups protested. The letters were immediately withdrawn. And here we sit.

One thing activists on many sides of this issue seem to agree on –- it’s time to bring undocumented workers out of the shadows.  That would be wise, as it would also bring countless identity theft victims out of the shadows. 

But until that happens, the IRS, the SSA and the nation’s credit bureaus need to develop a system that allows the rightful holder of a Social Security number to know if it has a secret life. 

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