Government Blip Gives Away New Englanders’ Social Security Numbers to Pacific Islanders

Holly Ramer, Los Angeles Times, August 16, 2009

When Tropical Storm Chata’an struck the Federated States of Micronesia in 2002, the U.S. government sent 1,300 blankets, 4,000 disposable diapers, 30 cases of sardines–and my Social Security number.

The nine digits that govern so much of Americans’ identities are supposed to be ours for life–and only ours. But mine ended up linked to a Micronesian man who defaulted on a disaster loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

I didn’t find out until March, in a letter from a debt collector threatening to garnish my wages if I didn’t pay $7,306 in two days. The same could happen to an unknown number of others, because of a processing glitch that the U.S. Social Security Administration didn’t even know existed and the federal government hasn’t fixed.

Who is giving away American Social Security numbers to strangers in other lands? The answer is not so simple.

The problem involves three Pacific island nations, each of which has its own, independent Social Security Administration. The three–the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau–grant defense rights in the region to the U.S., and in exchange receive aid, including grants and loans after disasters.

For instance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency sent $20 million to 9,700 people in the Federated States of Micronesia after the 2002 storm. The three countries together have received USDA housing grants and loans worth $33 million since 2000.

Some federal agencies collect locally-issued Social Security numbers from grant and loan applicants and report them to credit bureaus as if they were U.S. numbers, regardless of whether the numbers already are in use.

That’s the beginning of the problem, which isn’t identity theft but can create some of the same headaches when identities become linked in the eyes of lenders or creditors.

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It turns out that Social Security numbers in two of the three Pacific Island nations don’t even have nine digits like U.S. numbers. They have eight, but some U.S. computers automatically add a zero to the front to fill in the blank.

Sometimes, that creates new numbers beginning with a double-zero–just like New Hampshire’s Social Security numbers, and Maine’s.

Bottom line: If your U.S. number starts with 002-6, 003-9, 005-7 or 007-8, it could match a number in Micronesia. Numbers that start 006-4 could match numbers in Palau. Those that start with 004 could match numbers in the Marshall Islands.

That works out to roughly 135,000 possible matches, according to an Associated Press comparison of the numbering systems. But no one knows how many actually exist.

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None of the three major credit reporting agencies has any way to distinguish between U.S. Social Security numbers and those issued in the three island nations, said industry spokesman Norm Magnuson, who answered questions on behalf of all three agencies.

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The credit bureaus say call the Social Security Administration. But Social Security mainly cares about crediting wages earned by American workers to the right person. If that’s not an issue, it’s not their problem.

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