1 Social Security number, 81 names

When a California woman got a $15,813 tax bill after not working in years, she realized something was wrong.

Published June 17, 2006

DUBLIN, Calif. - Audra Schmierer's Social Security number has been used by at least 81 people in 17 states.

Her case is an example of an increasingly common problem: Many thieves are able to steal personal information because employers do not have to verify Social Security numbers or other documents submitted by job seekers.

Sellers of fake documents often make up numbers and use them repeatedly.

The situation has long drawn fire from anti-illegal immigration groups, but Congress has only recently moved to fix it. Both the House and Senate have passed immigration reform bills that call for employers to verify Social Security numbers in a national database.

Schmierer, 33, a stay-at-home mom in this San Francisco suburb, realized she had a problem in February 2005, when she got a statement from the IRS saying she owed $15,813 in back taxes - even though she had not worked since her son was born in 2000. Perhaps even more surprising, the taxes were due from jobs in Texas.

Schmierer called the IRS and learned that numerous people were using her Social Security number. Officials said the erroneous balances would be eliminated, but the agency would have to correct the problem again in future years.

Schmierer has combed through tax bills sent to her for names and locations of employers who hired people using her number.

She has also obtained more than 200 W-2 and 1099 tax forms that contained her Social Security number but different names.

People used her Social Security number from Florida to Washington state. The top wage earner made $39,465, but most reported income of less than $15,000.

Information gleaned from criminal investigations, tax documents and other sources suggested that most of the users were illegal immigrants.

While returning from a trip to Mexico with her husband last year, Schmierer was detained for four hours in a Dallas airport by immigration officials. The reason: A woman using her Social Security number was wanted for a felony.

Schmierer's number became so compromised that Social Security officials finally took a step used only in extreme cases: They gave her a new one.