The Secret List of ID Theft Victims

Bob Sullivan, MSNBC, Jan. 27

Linda Trevino, who lives in a Chicago suburb, applied for a job last year at a local Target department store, and was denied. The reason? She already worked there—or rather, her Social Security number already worked there.

Follow-up investigation revealed the same Social Security number had been used to obtain work at 37 other employers, mostly by illegal immigrants trying to satisfy government requirements to get a job.

Trevino is hardly alone. MSNBC.com research and government reports suggest hundreds of thousands of American citizens are in the same spot—unknowingly lending their identity to illegal immigrants so they can work. And while several government agencies and private corporations sometimes know whose Social Security numbers are being ripped off, they won’t notify the victims. That is, until they come after the victims for back taxes or unpaid loans owed by the imposter.

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“People need to wake up to this problem,” said Richard Hamp, an assistant attorney general for the state of Utah who has prosecuted several cases involving stolen IDs and illegal immigrants. “They are destroying people’s credit, Social Security benefits, and everything else. This problem has been ignored by the federal government, and it’s enormous.”

But could Trevino, and all the other victims, be warned by the government? After all, several agencies and corporations found her when they wanted her money. Until then, not a single one had bothered to warn her that someone else was using her Social Security number.

Everyone benefits—except the victim

Melody Millet’s husband Steve was the victim of immigrant identity theft. None of the agencies involved are trying to tackle the problem because they all benefit from it, as does corporate America, she said. The IRS and Social Security collect extra taxes, lenders sell more loans and employers get inexpensive workers. Fixing the problem and telling all the victimized consumers would upset the delicate apple cart that is America’s immigration policy, she said.

“The government is forcing people to share identities because they want to provide cheap labor to corporate America,” Melody Millet said.

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With every paycheck, U.S. workers pay FICA taxes, destined for Social Security funds. But each year, millions of payments are made to the agency with mismatched names and numbers. The Social Security Administration has no idea who deserves credit for the taxes paid by those wage earnings—so no one gets it. The amount of uncredited Social Security wages is now an enormous $420 billion, an amount that sits in what’s called the Earnings Suspense File, an accounting limbo.

During 2002, the year with the most recent figures available, 9 million people paid taxes with mismatched names and Social Security Numbers. Some were women who had failed to notify the agency that their name changed after marriage. Some were the result of typographical errors.

But most—between 50 and 80 percent depending on whom you talk to—represent illegal immigrants using a stolen or manufactured Social Security number at the workplace.

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Others find the Internal Revenue Service on their backs, looking for payment of back taxes for wages earned by their imposters. Some see refunds held up by the confusion; others see their wages garnished.

Trevino found herself in a financial nightmare. All those imitators made a mess out of her work history, her Social Security benefits records and her credit report. She was haunted by bills and creditors. She received threatening letters from the IRS, asking her to pay taxes on money earned by her imposters. She was told to re-pay unemployment benefits she had received, after the government discovered she was “working” while drawing benefits.

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Bob Sullivan is author of Your Evil Twin: Behind the Identity Theft Epidemic.

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