We know your Social Security number

Nov 20, 2007 at 8:58 pm

With identity theft consistently on the rise, why is it that anyone with an Internet connection can get all the necessary components — from the County Clerk’s Web site?

It is at least curious, if not downright alarming, that there are thousands upon thousands of Social Security numbers available for free, through the unsecured Web site of the Jefferson County Clerk’s Office. They are there among scads of notarized documents viewable in handy PDF format, things you’d probably be surprised to learn are actually public record: Your will might be there, for instance, or a mortgage agreement or the deed to your house. Your signature could appear in multiple formats.

Perhaps even more disconcerting, however, is the fact that thousands of perfectly valid Social Security numbers currently being used by actual people show up on pages of search results — there is no need to download an actual document. The numbers are right there, along with names and addresses. They show up only when certain search criteria are selected; however, it is not difficult to imagine a would-be identity thief with a few drops of Internet savvy figuring out how to piece together a name, date of birth, Social Security number, home address and signature.

It didn’t take many mentions of this to solicit requisite outrage, and LEO will not divulge any names, numbers or direct methods to actually obtain this information, short of saying that it exists. However, in all of about five minutes, I was able to piece together a full package that could be used for any number of things. Considering that the holiday season is beckoning, a few new credit cards might be the ticket.

Jefferson County Clerk Bobbie Holsclaw’s office has known about the easy access to Social Security numbers for more than three years. Nore Ghibaudy, the agency’s director of public relations, said in an interview last week that his office has been trying to direct those submitting information to the clerk’s office — state and federal agencies, banks, mortgage companies, other real estate professionals — to redact Social Security numbers before sending documents, because Kentucky law prohibits the County Clerk from modifying original documents before they are entered into its system.

“When that was brought to our attention by somebody, we did our best to correct the problem,” he said. “It takes a lot of man hours.”

Indeed it does: According to a memo issued by the clerk’s office on Feb. 26, it would cost around $200,000 for redacting software and take more than 40 years to comb through all the records, which reach back to 1800.
The clerk’s office has installed full-time staffers to remove Social Security numbers from records that have already been filed. The agency’s process is simple but grueling: First, the document is booked and paged, which is the recording system for all public records. The original document is then copied and returned to its owner. Certain information, including Social Security numbers, is redacted from the copy. Then the copy is scanned and uploaded to the Web site.

Ghibaudy said they get through about 3,000 a week, which is scratching the surface. He also indicated that his office isn’t getting much outside help: A May 19, 2006 letter to Gov. Ernie Fletcher asking for an executive order requiring state agencies to use a means of identifying documents other than Social Security numbers yielded no results. Since then, the clerk’s office has met with some members of the governor’s staff and heads of state agencies to discuss the problem; no solution has arrived. The governor’s office did not respond for this story.

The state legislature has not acted to change the law, although Sen. Julian Carroll, D-7, did introduce a bill last session to replace Social Security numbers with personal ID numbers on documents relating to state government employees. The measure never ascended committee.

Identify theft is the fastest-growing crime in America; according to the Department of Justice, there are some 15 million victims every year. The overall cost of fraud in this country exceeds the annual budget of the U.S. military.

It’s hitting just as hard in Louisville as anywhere else, said Det. Matthew Glass of the Louisville Metro Police Department’s Fraud Unit. He was a little surprised to hear about the bounty of personal info available from the County Clerk’s office, but said companies and government agencies seem to be coming around to the idea that waving around sensitive personal information isn’t a good idea. For instance, most insurance cards no longer identify you by your SSN.

“Unfortunately, it’s just moving much slower than what the rise of incidents is,” Glass said. “Most everyone, it seems, they’re finally accepting the problem and trying to make remedies. It’d be good for us if it would move a little faster.”

An available Social Security number is one of the easiest ways to steal someone’s identity. A woman in California pleaded guilty recently to federal fraud charges, after using a stolen Social Security number to get thousands of dollars worth of credit cards, according to the DOJ. She then filed bankruptcy in the name of the person whose number she’d stolen. Also, a man in Florida was indicted recently on fraud charges for obtaining names, Social Security numbers and addresses from a Web site and using the information to apply for a series of car loans.

Metro Councilman Jim King, D-10, is holding a seminar (unrelated to this story) on Dec. 4 to help constituents be more prepared for the possibility of identity theft as the holidays approach. Senior citizens comprise just over 60 percent of King’s district, said Rob Holtzmann, the councilman’s assistant. Holtzmann added that King’s office is willing to lobby whomever necessary to see that removal of sensitive personal information from such a public arena gets on a fast track.

“It’s common sense that we should be working with our state legislators to have those types of activities made confidential,” he said. “I’m certain that other states have.”

Naturally, it would’ve been difficult, if not impossible, to anticipate the ease with which we now share information. As appears to be the case here, the need for openness in government — and the importance of open records laws in America — has run headfirst into a criminal element of the Internet Age. Many states have enacted laws requiring that Social Security numbers no longer be used as primary modes of identifying citizens. Perhaps it’s time Kentucky catches up.

Contact the Jefferson County Clerk’s Office at 574-5700 or www.jeffersoncountyclerk.org. Contact the writer at [email protected]