SSA Putting Millions of Americans at Risk

By: Elizabeth Harrington
The Washington Free Beacon

The Social Security Administration puts millions of Americans at risk for identity theft by putting their full Social Security Numbers on letters sent in the mail.

The agency’s inspector general released an audit this week warning the government that by sending hundreds of millions of letters containing individual’s Social Security Numbers it puts them at risk for identity theft.

“According to [the Social Security Administration] SSA, in 2015, it mailed about 233 million notices that included individuals’ full SSN,” the inspector general said. “We recognize SSA’s efforts can never eliminate the potential that dishonest individuals may inappropriately acquire and misuse SSNs. However, our audit and investigative work have shown that the more SSNs are unnecessarily used, the higher the probability that they could be used inappropriately.”

“The security of beneficiaries’ [Personally Identifiable Information] PII should be foremost, and as a Federal agency and public servant, we believe SSA should be in the forefront of establishing policy and practice by limiting SSN use and disclosure,” the audit said.

Sixty-six percent of the 352 million notices the agency sent out last year contained Americans’ full Social Security Numbers, and the government said it has no idea how many never made it to the correct address.“While it is unknown how many of the intended addressees received these notices, our audit work has shown that the addresses in SSA’s records can be inaccurate,” the inspector general said
“We asked SSA whether it maintained any estimates on the number of mailings that were returned as undeliverable. SSA stated that it did not have any Agency-level number on undeliverable mail,” they said. “SSA could not provide us an estimate of the number of notices with SSNs it mails annually that do not reach the intended recipients and are not returned to SSA.”

The inspector general warned that notices sent to the wrong address can increase identify theft, as it can give strangers access to vital personal information. “Notices intercepted by unintended recipients could provide SSA beneficiaries’ names, addresses, and SSNs to individuals other than the numberholders,” they said.

Auditors said they do not currently have documented proof of identity theft that has occurred as a result of agency letters going to the wrong address, though the agency acknowledged “there is a risk of identity theft anytime it sends correspondence that contains PII.”

The inspector general said identity theft is “one of the fastest-growing crimes” in the country.”

“With a stolen SSN, identity thieves can commit any number of financial crimes in the victim’s name or steal money from the victim,” the audit said. “If the victim is a senior citizen, the thief could even target their Social Security benefits.”

“SSA acknowledges that identity thieves may obtain another’s personal information by stealing their mail or rummaging through their trash,” the inspector general concluded. “It is, therefore, troubling that SSA continues including the full SSN on the majority of its mailings.”

How To Avoid Identity Theft.

By Stewart Welch
on August 03, 2016 at 4:21 PM, updated August 03, 2016 at 4:33 PM
New Stewart Welch.jpgStewart Welch Founder of The Welch Group, which specializes in fee-only investment advice to families throughout the country. Contact welchgroup.com

AL.com recently reported on the arrest of a two-man Detroit theft ring who were in possession of 177 stolen identities.  Identity theft continues to be a growing multi-billion-dollar problem. I feel like the wildebeest crossing the crocodile infested Mara River.  I’m only protected by the law of large numbers.  What are your best moves to protect yourself from identity theft?  First, understand that attacks come from primarily two fronts:

Unauthorized charges against your existing bank or credit accounts.  I’ve personally had my credit card stolen on a Saturday night and by the time I discovered it on Sunday, there were over $1,000 of unauthorized charges.  I’ve also had my information used to make internet charges for several thousand dollars.  In both cases the credit card company did not hold me responsible.  Your best defense is to closely monitor all of your banking and credit card accounts.  For my credit cards I set up text alerts anytime a charge of over $25 is made.  For bank accounts I log in every couple of days and scan recent activity.  Easy, quick, effective.

Tip:  Fraudulent credit card charges are typically easy to handle with little or no losses to you.  Debit cards are an entirely different story.  If a thief uses your debit card information to purchase something or access your ATM, that money is gone from your checking account and won’t be restored until your bank goes through an investigative process.  This can take weeks and you’ll be out the money until it’s resolved.  If you have and use a debit card, guard it and your information very closely and I recommend monitoring your account activity on a daily basis.  If there is a problem, you’ll want to catch it early.

Use your information to open new credit in your name.  While this has never happened to me, it can be devastating to your personal finances.  If this happens the burden shifts to you to prove you didn’t open the account.  Your first line of defense should be to order your credit reports from each of Experian.com,Transunion.com and Equifax.com.   Look for any unfamiliar accounts.  These reports are free once every twelve months so a good idea is to order from one of the services every four months.  You may also want to consider hiring a monitoring service which will alert you immediately if new credit is requested in your name.  Each of these credit bureaus offer a monitoring service as do independent companies such as LifeLock.com.  Fees range from around $15 to $30 per month.  For quick access to your free annual credit reports, visitAnnualCreditReport.com.

Tip: If someone has stolen your credit information or you suspect you are vulnerable to theft, you can place a fraud alert or credit freeze on your account. Fraud alerts are good for ninety days and then are automatically removed unless you re-establish them.  This alerts any company seeking your credit file that you may be a victim of fraud and they should take extra precautions to verify that new or additional credit requests are valid.  A credit freeze is designed to prevent your credit file from being released without your expressed permission.  Credit freezes are ‘good until cancelled’ and you have the option to ‘temporarily’ remove the freeze if, for example, you are applying for a loan or additional credit.  If you have been a victim of credit fraud, there is generally no charge for these services; otherwise a small charge may apply.

For more tips on avoiding identity theft visit www.usa.gov/identity-theft.

SCAM OF THE WEEK: Brace yourself for IRS frauds!

By Ellen Marks / Assistant Business Editor/Albuquerque Journal
PUBLISHED: Sunday, February 1, 2015 at 12:02 am

It seems as though the annual ritual of figuring out your taxes, filing a flutter of paperwork and trying not to get crosswise with the IRS would be difficult enough, but no. We also must deal with a sharp rise in scams this time of year that prey upon already-taxed taxpayers.

The state Attorney General’s Office has seen “a tremendous increase in the number of IRS scams being reported,” says Rebecca Branch, deputy director of the Consumer Protection Division.

“I anticipate that these will continue in full force until April,” she says.

Among the most common is the one in which a caller tells you he is from the IRS and that you owe money. If you don’t send payment immediately, you are threatened with dire consequences – anything from police arrest to license revocation to deportation.

Or callers might tell you that you are due a refund and try to trick you into sharing private information. “These con artists can sound convincing when they call,” an IRS news release says. “They may know a lot about you.”

They often alter caller ID numbers to make it look like the IRS is calling, and they might use fake names and bogus IRS badge numbers. They often leave “urgent” callback requests.

In fact, these types of calls are such a “persistent and pervasive problem” that they top the IRS’ 2015 “Dirty Dozen” list, which details the most-common scams hitting taxpayers.

“If someone calls unexpectedly claiming to be from the IRS with aggressive threats if you don’t pay immediately, it’s a scam artist calling,” said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. “The first IRS contact with taxpayers is usually through the mail.”

New Mexicans have been bilked out of a total of $26,000 since October 2013, due to this type of scam. Nationwide, about 290,000 such calls have been made during that period, tricking 3,000 victims out of more than $14 million, federal officials say.

The scammers’ prime goal – besides getting your money, of course – is to frighten you so that you will become their next target.

For example, one Albuquerque woman said the man who contacted her used a “threatening tone,” while another local resident said he was told the supposed IRS call represented his “final notice.”

The IRS says there are five classic scam elements that will tip you off because the IRS never:
•Uses email, text messages or any social media to discuss your personal tax issues involving bills or refund.
•Demands immediate payment, nor will the agency call about taxes owed without first having mailed you a bill.
•Demands that you pay taxes without giving you the opportunity to question or appeal the amount it says you owe.
•Requires that you use a specific payment method for your taxes, such as a prepaid debit card.
•Asks for credit- or debit-card numbers over the phone.
•Threatens to bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have you arrested for not paying.

There are other tax-related cons for you to be aware of this time of year.

It’s especially important to guard your private information, so you don’t become a victim of identity theft. Once someone has stolen your name, your Social Security number or other personal details, they can fraudulently file a tax return in your name and claim the refund. If you believe your identity has been stolen, call the IRS at 800-908-4490 so the agency can secure your account.

Be aware that scam artists pose as tax preparers. They promise large federal tax refunds, promoting their claims with fliers, advertisements, storefronts or even word of mouth involving community groups or churches, according to the IRS. This type of fraud tends to prey on people who don’t earn enough income to file a return or who are non-English speakers.

They might dupe you into making claims for fictitious rebates, benefits or tax credits or divert your refund.

Use care when choosing a tax preparer because you will be the one who ends up penalized for filing false claims or receiving fraudulent refunds.

Honest people and companies generally: Ask for proof of income and eligibility for credits and deductions; sign returns as the preparer; enter their IRS Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN) and provide the taxpayer a copy of the return.

Albuquerque police are warning of a different kind of scam, one in which the caller will tell you a family member has been kidnapped and that you must pay $3,000 for the person’s release.

He or she will start out asking “oblique, personal information questions …, under the auspices of a family member being involved in an automobile accident,” an APD news release says. “The caller then uses this information to make the threat more personal.”

Calls like these have been received in Albuquerque and in northern New Mexico and have come from the same number: 505-428-8866, which is a disposable cellphone purchased in Santa Fe, police say.

Ellen Marks is assistant business editor at the Albuquerque Journal. Contact her at emarks@abqjournal.com or 505-823-3842 if you are aware of what sounds like a scam. To report a scam to law enforcement, contact the New Mexico Consumer Protection Division toll-free at 1-800-678-1508.