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    For your own sake, draw the line with the Social Security number

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    © St. Petersburg Times, published August 27, 2000

    TALLAHASSEE -- My employer and the government have my Social Security number. So do the bank, the mortgage company, Blue Cross, the telephone company and heaven knows who else. But when the cable company requested it, I finally drew the line.

    "I don't want cable badly enough to give you that," I said.

    "No problem," said the customer service representative. "We can get along without it. And personally, I agree with you. But why not us, when you must have given it to others?"

    Because enough was enough.

    With your Social Security number, anyone else can steal your identity and your reputation and eventually collection agencies and maybe even the police will be pounding on your door. A California survey found that identity theft victims needed, on average, 175 hours of telephoning, letter-writing and other paralegal drudgery to put their lives back together. That's like a month lost from work.

    "It cost me $1,000 in attorney's fees and four weeks of my time in which I refused to drive because I was afraid that if I were stopped for any reason I would be arrested," said Chris Robinson, a Floridian whose identity was stolen by a former college classmate charged with sexual assault. The man broke probation and a warrant was issued in Robinson's name. It turned up during a state contract background check.

    Robinson, who testified by telephone Friday to the state's new Task Force on Privacy and Technology, figures the ex-classmate got his birth date, Social Security number and driver's license number from a university computer database supposedly accessible only to faculty and staff.

    But of course an ingenious thief with good contacts would have other ways to get the data.

    Reg Brown, the task force chairman and deputy general counsel to Gov. Jeb Bush, commissioned Carlos Melendez, a Miami investigator, to find out what he could about Brown just from the press release announcing Brown's appointment. In less than five minutes, using a mildly restricted commercial database, Melendez had Social Security numbers for both Brown and his wife, their present and past addresses, and the Social Security numbers of eight people who had rented the Browns' Tallahassee town house while they had been in Washington.

    I recalled that the cable company had said they run credit checks on new customers. That's why they wanted the number. For all I know, they got it anyway.

    The credit industry claims that it needs the Social Security number, America's only "unique identifier," to tell similarly named people apart. Melendez doesn't think so. Checking by birth dates is just as good, he said, though a little less convenient.

    Convenience should not be an acceptable reason for private enterprise or government agencies to be collecting Social Security numbers. Access should be limited to those who are legally required to share your financial data with the IRS. That's a short list consisting largely of employers and financial institutions.

    But the Social Security number has become, as Robinson conceded, "ubiquitous." College professors post grades by Social Security numbers, ostensibly to protect students' privacy. Some states use the Social Security number as a driver's license number. The telephone company here claims to need it as a security check when you call for service, though they still can't get my mailing address right. There are video rental stores that list customers by their Social Security numbers. Barbara Peterson, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation and a member of the task force, says she knows people who are so worn down at being asked for their Social Security number that they print it on their checks.

    How long before the communications industry hits on the idea of using your Social Security number as your telephone number? After all, it is unique.

    Congress is to blame for allowing this. There's only so much the states can do. The Florida task force, which has only until February to write a report, isn't going to be able to undertake more than to tighten up on how much information the state collects, see to making it more careful about safeguarding the few facts (such as Social Security numbers) that shouldn't be public, and giving help (as several witnesses urged) to Floridians who are trying to recover from identity theft, one of the fastest-growing crimes. Robinson carries a letter from the state attorney in what he called "county x." An official database of acknowledged identity theft victims would help even more, especially if police and prosecutors were required to consult it. Meanwhile, each of us needs to get pickier about who gets our Social Security number, no matter how much they say they need it, and we ought to be demanding that the Legislature forbid state agencies or Florida businesses (like Blue Cross) from using it as routine identification. This may make life temporarily more difficult, but more secure in the long run. Besides, you probably don't really need to rent that video anyway.

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