The National Council of Investigation and Security Services is an association of professional private investigators and firms providing security services throughout the United States. We appreciate the opportunity to assist the Identity Theft Task Force to develop a comprehensive record on the private sector use of Social Security numbers.
Investigators play a vital role in the American legal system serving the courts, businesses, non profits and attorneys. A primary function of investigators is to obtain accurate, verifiable information on which courts can rely. Our members must be able to demonstrate that the John Smith who has been identified as a potential witness is the correct John Smith who can provide relevant information. If we expect the courts to make fair judgments, they must have accurate facts from all sides. The SSN is a critical element to help investigators authenticate an individual's identity.
Courts often require attorneys to include Social Security numbers on legal documents. In many jurisdictions judges will not issue judgment collection orders without correct Social Security numbers.
Because a Social Security number is assigned to only one individual,it is unique among identifiers. It stays with that individual when he or she moves or marries. It does not change. No other single piece of information is as useful. Lexis-Nexis has testified that there are 43,000 Robert Jones in the United States. Clearly many share the same birth date. There is no valid substitute for the SSN because no other identifier is as universally used. The SSN is invaluable for identifying and locating women whose names have changed due to marriage or divorce.
Private investigators do not "collect" Social Security numbers. The SSN is useful for investigators only to the extent that it helps locate or correctly identify an individual or record. We do this by examining documents and using commercial databases that link SSN's,names, locations and other data. On occasion it is necessary to include an SSN with other identifiers in order to demonstrate to the court that the identification is correct.
The question has been raised as to whether the SSN is in such widespread use that it should not be used as an authenticator. It should not be the sole source for authentication. Licensed investigators use it as one part of an accurate identification, not the sole source of information. And it is most often a pointer,assisting us to go to the right public record, courthouse or address to verify information.
The commercial databases we utilize are developed through many sources, including public records and "credit headers", the non-credit section of reports that provide identification and address information.
Investigators do not have access to the central criminal history database that law enforcement officials do, so it is essential to have addresses when seeking information about prior convictions. With prior address data, investigators know which courthouse records to search. Without the address, we may not even know in which states to look. This information is important for more than pre-employment purposes. In both civil and criminal trials, attorneys need to know the backgrounds of witnesses and potential witnesses. It is particularly important to be able to conduct background investigations of expert witnesses to verify their credentials and locate previous testimony.
Legislation now being considered in Congress (HR 948, HR 3046) would deny investigators and others access to Social Security numbers and in all likelihood limit access to databases that we use to locate witnesses. In California, database searches led directly to witnesses who recanted testimony and helped free a man wrongly imprisoned for twenty years. Without the ability to use the database,it is highly unlikely these witnesses would have been located and justice would not have been served.
Cost of Losing Use of the SSN
The absence of an exception for private investigators would deny a critical tool to persons accused of crime. This is particularly important for indigent defendants because of the small expense budgets available to public defenders and appointed counsels. A cost effective way to locate witnesses is required. They don't have the resources of the state. The lack of such an exception raises an obvious due process issue where the police have access to a database not available to defendants. Even worse, every legislative vehicle restricting access to personal data includes an exception for law enforcement. Although law enforcement authorities certainly should have access to such information, denying it to the defense would clearly raise fifth ,sixth, and fourteenth amendment issues relating to rights to counsel,examination of witnesses and due process.
Licensed investigators utilize this information for purposes other than locating witnesses. Our members, for example, assist in locating ill-gotten gains. A past president of NCISS was retained by the New York courts in a guardianship proceeding to recover over $300,000 in assets stolen from a ninety-seven year-old retired Army officer by a neighbor caregiver. Through the use of credit headers he was immediately able to determine the identities and locations of the wrongdoer's relatives, properties and eventually the assets that had been taken from the victim. It was the initial header check on the suspect that uncovered a Myrtle Beach, South Carolina address for him.That information developed leads that the victim's assets had been used to purchase real property in South Carolina, expensive automobiles and increased the bank account balances of the subject under the guise that the 97-year-old victim, who was suffering from dementia, had given his life savings as gifts to the suspect. The suspect was to eventually plead guilty and was sentenced to three to nine years in state prison for second-degree grand larceny and ordered to pay $360,000 in restitution to the estate of the victim, who died a month before sentencing of the defendant. This case would not have been solved without the Social Security number verification.
A Texas investigator recently assisted in locating an indigent pregnant woman who was then assisted by a charitable donor. She never would have been located without access to the credit header information as a tool to assist the charitable donor.Investigators also use the data to locate lost heirs, pension beneficiaries who have gone missing and in child support cases.Role of SSN's in Identity Theft and Fraud
The 2007 Identity Fraud Survey Report by Javelin Strategy and Research found that 53 percent of identity fraud was done by someone familiar to the victim and that one is three times as likely to become an ID theft victim from the loss of a wallet than through Internet hacking. Our members are sometimes called upon to help ID theft victims and are familiar with how thefts occur. Our experience is that most such thefts result from the purloining of documents, files, charge slips,credit cards, and wallets from restaurants, stores, trash bins, the mails and private property, phishing or other techniques.
If private investigators are denied access to SSN's and databases which include the SSN, we will be less able to respond to identity theft and other victims of fraud. It is no secret that law enforcement does not have all the resources it needs to fight white collar crime,including identity theft. That crime is difficult to solve and often involves multiple jurisdictions. The result is that few identity thefts are investigated by law enforcement. One high tech crimes taskforce in California is only able to handle one sixth of the ID theft cases it received. Many victims must turn to licensed investigators for assistance. In some instances, when accessing databases,investigators have discovered that the criminal is using multiple SSN's.
Thresholds Limit Law Enforcement Investigation of White Collar Crime
In numerous cases, victims of crime have turned to licensed investigators because the victim's loss is below thresholds set by law enforcement agencies and prosecutors. These thresholds are established because of the substantially limited resources available to police agencies and the necessity to establish priorities. But the result is that victims of non-violent crime must often turn to others for justice. A case under investigation in Virginia illustrates the point. Authorities would not investigate the matter because the client's $75,000 in losses did not meet or exceed the law enforcement agency's minimum threshold to investigate in Fairfax County. Using the SSN, a licensed investigator discovered that a former contractor had two social security numbers, two aliases, drivers' licenses in multiple jurisdictions and her company employee identification number is the same as a deceased individual's social security number in Michigan.
The Commission should survey law enforcement agencies itself to understand the significance of these thresholds. When crime victims cannot turn to authorities for help it would make no sense to limit the ability of licensed private investigators to render necessary assistance.
Here are some other examples of how private investigators have assisted identity theft and other victims of fraud:
In Atlanta, Georgia, an auto dealership asked our investigator to help an applicant who claimed his identity had been stolen. An impostor had stolen this man's social security number and date of birth as well as the identity of four other people. His criminal record included nine felonies in Georgia and other multi-state offenses. The applicant couldn't understand why he had been turned down for several jobs until one potential employer leveled with him and he realized his identity had been stolen. Numerous law enforcement agencies told him they couldn't help him. Our investigator arranged for the applicant to be fingerprinted and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation issued him a certificate stating he was not the same person as the impostor. He then carried the certificate to the three major credit bureaus to clear his name in their files.
An investigation in California found a middle-aged suspect had returned home after years away and stolen his elderly father's identity. He went on a spending spree in Oregon and California and was not called to answer before both his parents passed away. A private investigator was hired by the estate to try to apprehend the thief and obtain restitution. Most of the investigator's leads involved the use of credit header information.
In San Francisco, an investigator reports working a case for a successful business owner who started getting statements in the mail saying he owed tens of thousands of dollars on computers and other purchases, none of which he knew anything about. He found someone had hijacked his identity, opened credit card and store accounts in his name and had even opened a web page mirroring his web page and had an email address similar to his. The San Francisco Police said they would take a report, but would not investigate and suggested he go to the Secret Service. Although losses approached $80,000, the Secret Service said they would not handle the case until at least $100,000 was lost.The victim had a suspicion it was an ex-employee who lived in Salt Lake City and called the investigator. The agency used credit header information to learn that the ex-employee has three names, three or four social security numbers, and three different dates of birth on file.
The SSN is critical to investigators for conducting other fraud investigations as well. It can be particularly important for matters involving theft of intellectual property, ranging from copyrighted music and motion pictures to design of computer chips.
A Las Vegas, Nevada licensed investigator describes a serious case of identity theft that would not have been revealed without the use of the SSN. A law firm retained him to investigate its office manager/accountant who had aroused suspicion. The investigator cross checked the office manager's W-4 against several 9 digit SSN's derived from credit headers contained in commercial databases. They disclosed a single digit different between the W-4 and the credit bureau headers. He identified and located the real individual whose identity the office manager was using through those same proprietary databases.
Upon interviewing that individual in Phoenix he found out that 10 years earlier, he and many others in Phoenix had been the victim of identity theft by this same perpetrator. The Phoenix interviewee was able to provide him with a 10 year old news clipping that contained a photograph of the office manager who was identified as the swindler who victimized the people in Phoenix and fled. Upon identifying the office manager and coordinating with the FBI, he learned that the office manager was a two time loser who was a fugitive from California.
An attorney contacted one of our members on behalf of the out-of-state children of a local, wealthy and infirm retired couple. The children had been cut off from regular communication by a new caregiver who had moved into the family home. The attorney asked him to investigate the caregiver. He developed the caregiver's SSN, which led to her previous names and information that she had a shaky financial past. She had also been fired from two previous jobs for financial improprieties.The licensed investigator also learned she had moved her boyfriend into the family home. When he conducted a background check on the boy friend he learned that the boyfriend had been charged in another state with elder abuse. He provided the name and SSN of the caregiver and boyfriend to the local police, who assisted in evicting them from the family home. During a search of the family's computer, they discovered someone had been searching the Internet for information on poisons.
Preventing Identity Theft
The Javelin report cited above indicates that there has been a recent drop in ID theft and fraud of 12 percent. There may be some impact from public awareness of the problem, increased enforcement and the enactment of data breach legislation in more than 30 states. NCISS does believe that many instances of ID theft could be prevented by keeping Social Security numbers off identification documents such as drivers' licenses and others that are commonly carried, including student and insurance identification. We also believe that SSN's should not be available to the general public over the Internet. In addition, there should be serious sanctions for the misuse of Social Security numbers by anyone with access to them.
The primary risk of identity theft is that a criminal will open a credit account in an individuals name. Section 326 of the Patriot Act requires financial institutions to confirm the identity of the person opening an account. Effective confirmation of identities by these firms will reduce incidents of fraud over time. But it is also essential that commercial databases continue to have access to SSN's so that financial institutions and other firms extending credit can be assured that the data are accurate.
One of our members reported a recent investigation that had profound benefits for many employees. In this case, a local venture capital firm needed to find a shareholder in a company they had made an offer to purchase. If they could not find this final shareholder to sign off on the offer, the company was scheduled to go into bankruptcy and the firm's offer would have been voided. The investigator had the shareholder's name and an old address. By developing the Social Security number of the shareholder, he was able to track him from 2002 forward to his current address and phone number. The client phoned him and he was more than willing to sign off on the venture firm's offer,insuring that the company could be purchased and rebuilt into a viable entity, thereby saving the jobs of a hundred employees.
Appropriate Access to Data
Any restriction on the sale or use of Social Security numbers should provide for appropriate exceptions for critical uses of the data. We suggest the following exceptions to remedy the concerns we've listed above. Similar exceptions exist under the 1994 Drivers Privacy Protection Act (18 USC 2721). These exceptions have proven effective over these many years and are also found in pending data breach legislation, S-1178. We suggest that restrictions on the sale of SSN's not apply to activities:
"to identify or locate missing or abducted persons, witnesses,criminals and fugitives, persons that are or may become parties to litigation, parents delinquent in child support payments, organ and bone marrow donors, pension fund beneficiaries, missing heirs and persons material to due diligence inquiries."
Any restrictions on the use of Social Security numbers will have a substantial impact on American business and the judicial system.Because the SSN has become a universally applied identifier,restrictions on its use will have unintended consequences for society.Although advocates of restricting the use of SSN's have done a good job of identifying the risk of fraud, there has been little focus until now of the impact of proposed solutions. In 1996 Congress enacted amendments to the Fair Credit Reporting Act that resulted in the unintended requirement to provide notice to suspected criminals when they were being investigated in the workplace. It was not remedied until FACTA was enacted in 2003. We are hoping to avoid a similar result when privacy legislation and regulations are adopted.
Take your own experience and turn it into a letter to help save SSN access - I have provided a link for your congress person, this link includes, name, address, phone, fax and email.
We only have a SHORT amount of time to act - Do your part to SAVE this vital tool!
Patrick L. Baird