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The Identity Theft You Haven't Heard of...Yet

Target: Your Social Security Number continued...

And they usually get away with the crime because there are surprisingly few checks to stop this kind of theft, say prosecutors: Employers aren't required by law to verify Social Security Numbers and some car salesmen and mortgage brokers are willing to overlook a fishy credit report in order to complete a sale.

Every year, the Social Security Administration (SSA) receives eight to nine million earnings reports where the name doesn't match the SSN. Sometimes it's a minor mix-up — there are women, for example, who get married and change their names, but never notify the SSA. In a growing number of cases, however, the problem is ID theft. And the perpetrators rarely get caught because wage reports (like medical files) are considered private. So when a mismatch occurs, instead of investigating, the SSA places the suspect documents in a "suspense file" and essentially walks away.

For example, the SSA never told one victim in Utah that her number had been stolen by an illegal immigrant named Araceli M. Lagunes. If Lagunes's victim had ordered a credit report, would she have discovered that an ID thief used her number to get a mortgage (and refinance it at least once)? Not necessarily. Because Lagunes was using her own name, not her victim's, Lagunes's credit history went into a subfile, completely separate from the victim's (though linked by their shared number). However, Lagunes's credit activity could be seen by any merchant or employer who ran a check on the card. Worse still, Lagunes's bill-paying habits, whatever they were, could have affected the rightful owner's credit score. (Lagunes has pleaded guilty.)

"This is a kettle that's about to boil over," says Utah Assistant Attorney General Richard Hamp. "The federal government won't lift the lid off." Hamp, one of the few attorneys general devoted to uncovering and publicizing this type of case, discovered that 132,000 SSNs were being used by more than one person in Utah alone in 2000.

In Houston, a city that ranks fourth in reported cases of identity theft per capita, Brewer is now pursuing the ID mills that brazenly sell fake cards, arguing that they promote other kinds of illegal activity. "The people who use these numbers are officially not on the grid," he says. "That has implications for safety and terrorism."

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