While there's no specific season for identity theft, a couple of times of year do tend to make it easier for commission of this pervasive crime.
Christmas time is, of course, prime stolen ID time. People are out there, in stores and online, spending like crazy, flashing credit and debit cards willy nilly and buying big-ticket items via installment agreements that require the release of personal and financial data.
Then there's tax time, when con artists take our natural fear of the tax man and turn it against us. As noted in my post on this year's "dirty dozen" tax scams, phishing during filing season continues to rank high on the list, coming in at #3. Scammers are sending out millions of fake e-mails seeking your personal information for ostensible tax purposes.
A key item sought by all financial criminals is your Social Security number, and a story in today's New York Times tells us that many times the bad guys don't even have to bother us to get it. Personal ID numbers are posted on various Internet sites, many of them official, just waiting to be taken.
Take my SSN, please: The problem, as noted in the story, is that our Social Security number is the personal identifier of choice for credit applications, medical records, numerous retail transactions and, of course, government documents. And when it comes to government paperwork that is deemed part of the public record, most agencies nowadays post these open-to-all documents on the Internet.
Some agencies block out the nine-digits before electronically publishing the document, but it's still usually available to anyone who wants to head down to the courthouse or city hall and look at the paper copy filed there.
A couple of years ago, a federal law was enacted to prohibit states from using Social Security numbers on drivers’ licenses. The story says, however, that databases with those numbers still exist and until 2001, states were able to sell lists with those numbers.
The hubby and I have some firsthand experience with a government agency selling our personal data. Thankfully, knock wood, it's not been a bad experience.
The info we provided the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles in order to get our licenses when we lived there was on a list the state sold to some banks, apparently so they could tell us we had already been approved for various credit cards. A class action lawsuit was filed and a couple of months ago, we got a $150 check as our portion of that suit's settlement.
It's obviously small recompense for the release, unbeknownst to us, of our information. And if an ID thief uses our information that was so readily passed around, it could cost us thousands of times more than that $150. But at least the message was sent.
Now we just have to keep checking our credit reports
Searching for the thieves: The NY Times' story suggests another way to find out if your Social Security number is floating around in cyberspace, just waiting to be snatched by an ID thief: StolenIDSearch.com. You can go to the site, operated by TrustedID based in Redwood City, Calif., type in your SSN to find out if it's somewhere out there on the Internet.
Ignoring the little clutch in my stomach
Yay! We both got the message: "Good News! Your social security number was not found by StolenID™ Search."
There's no cost to do the search. And the company also offers, again for free, its StolenID Monitor service. Added protection will cost you. You can check out the site, run your SSN and decide whether you think it's worthwhile to take further fee-based steps.
And although I can see how it might be helpful to have someone regularly check to make sure that your ID isn't compromised, I'm going to stick with the free annual credit bureau self-check option.
Taxes and SSNs: You can't file your taxes, or claim various tax breaks, without Social Security numbers. To begin with, the IRS won't process your 1040 if it doesn't have your Social Security number on it.
On a joint return, you've got to put your spouse's ID number on there, too. If you're a new bride and have taken your husband's name, make sure you've alerted the Social Security Administration of that so that you don't run into any tax filing problems.
The same case applies in reverse if you've divorced and dumped his moniker. And speaking of exes, you'll need his or her ID number if you pay alimony and deduct it.
As for your kids or other dependents, without their SSNs you can't claim the $3,300-per-person exemption amount on your taxes. You even need the tax ID number of the day care center where you stash Junior while you work.
One reader tells me that he's lost $35,000 in exemptions over the years as the parent of a child that has no Social Security number. I don't know his personal circumstances or why the youngster has no tax ID number. Obviously, it's a choice he made and is living with, albeit grudgingly.
But the bottom line is that when it comes to tax filing, you've got to have Social Security numbers and enter them in properly on your returns or, as my reader attests, it will cost you.
What's up with ###-##-####? This Web page explains just what those nine numbers mean.