Thwarting identity theft is a priority, officials say

Thwarting identity theft is a priority, officials say

Claudia Farrell didn’t know there was a problem with her Social Security number until the tax man called.

Farrell, a Washington, D.C., spokeswoman for the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, said it was about 20 years ago that she received a demand for unpaid taxes on income from several suburban Virginia jobs that she’d never held.

Repeated telephone calls eventually turned up a restaurant manager who remembered a male ex-worker named Claudio Farrell, who apparently got the job with Claudia Farrell’s Social Security number.

“Thankfully, he only did it for two years,” Farrell said. “But I would not have known had it not been for the IRS.”

Federal authorities charged more than 300 people with similar forms of Social Security fraud after last week’s raid on the Agriprocessors plant in Postville.

Julie Myers, assistant secretary of Homeland Security for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said that such thefts are among the agency’s highest priorities and an illustration that illegal immigration may be a driving force behind the nationwide growth in identity theft cases.

• An estimated 8.3 million Americans fell victims to some form of identity theft in 2005, according to an FTC survey last year.

• An investigation by MSNBC in 2005 found that a Social Security number from suburban Chicago had been used by illegal immigrants to get jobs at 37 businesses. “People need to wake up to this problem,” Richard Hamp, an assistant attorney general in Utah, told “They are destroying people’s credit, Social Security benefits and everything else. This problem has been ignored by the federal government, and it’s enormous.”

• Each year, millions in payroll tax deductions end up in a special catch-all account because of mismatched names and Social Security numbers. The size of the fund, which also includes errors because of misspellings and things such as married women who are paid under their maiden names, apparently began to skyrocket in 1986, when a new federal law required workers to produce Social Security cards to get employment.

By October 2006, the Earnings Suspense File had accumulated $586 billion.

Immigration authorities and the U.S. Department of Justice attacked the problem two years ago with a “document and benefit fraud task force” in 11 major cities.

“We’re certainly looking for it, I think, more avidly than before,” said Alan Jackson, an assistant U.S. attorney in Dallas. Federal authorities last month charged 45 people with false use of a Social Security card after raids on Pilgrim Pride poultry plants in Texas and four other states. The raids, Jackson said, began as pursuit of an identity theft ring, not an immigration concern.

Jackson said consumers may never know their Social Security numbers have been stolen if the identity is not used to obtain credit or obtain loans.

Farrell confirmed that credit reporting agencies might not disclose an extra name attached to a Social Security number. Consumers, because of privacy concerns, aren’t allowed to obtain their credit reports based on a Social Security number alone. Multiple names attached to the same number sometimes are treated as separate accounts.

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