Good morning, Chairman Breaux, Ranking Member Craig, and members of the Senate Special Committee on Aging. I want to commend you for holding this important hearing today on identity theft and America’s senior citizens.
Criminals do not steal the identities of the elderly so they can pretend to be old and wise. They do it because senior citizens are more likely than most of us to have significant assets--savings, investments, paid-up mortgages, good credit, and Federal entitlement checks. People over age 50 control at least 70 percent of the Nation’s household net worth.
Some senior citizens are easier and safer to rob because they are less sure of themselves, more trusting, and less aware of simple precautions. They may be less likely to review their monthly financial statements. They may hesitate to take action if they do find something wrong because they are afraid a relative is responsible for robbing them, or because they are afraid they will make their families feel they can no longer be trusted to live independently. As the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Identity Theft Data Clearinghouse has reported, incidents of identity theft targeting persons over the age of 60 increased from 1,821 victims in 2000 to 5,802 victims in 2001, a threefold increase. Anybody can steal candy from a baby, but criminals know our older Americans have money for the taking and they don’t cry out loud.
Identity theft is an "enabling" crime, one that permits criminals to commit other crimes more effectively. Those crimes may range from passing bad checks and defrauding credit card companies to horrific acts of terrorism. In most cases, identity theft begins with the misuse of the Social Security number (SSN). No aspect of the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Office of the Inspector General’s (OIG) mission of protecting Social Security programs from fraud, waste, and abuse is more important than our oversight of the use--and misuse--of the SSN.
There is an almost infinite variety to these cases.
From October 1994 to October 1998, this same man mailed letters and made phone calls using the names Rainbow International, Magic Numbers, and Future Concepts to tell seniors they were part of a group that could participate in pooled lottery winnings upon payment of a processing fee. When individuals mailed checks to one of several mailboxes he maintained at commercial mail receiving companies, he used their signatures and created fictitious authorization forms to gather information, and again withdrew money from their checking accounts.
After our investigation resulted in a 14-count indictment, the man pleaded guilty to mail fraud. The judge termed his activity "despicable," and sentenced him to 36 months incarceration, a special assessment fee of $100, a fine of $7,500, restitution to the 20 victims of approximately $6,736, and 3years supervised release. The special conditions of supervised released included that he not enter into any major financial purchases or obligations without the approval of probation, that he cooperate with the Internal Revenue Service to file tax returns, and that he not engage in telemarketing or the sale of discount merchandise unless in a retail establishment.
These are not necessarily small operations with solitary victims.
These stories illustrate that identity theft is a mushrooming reality. Though it is not a new phenomenon, today’s computer technology makes it a great deal easier than it used to be. Amassing somebody’s personal details is facilitated by the plethora of databases available today. We each leave markers in our daily commerce -- in credit card charges, loan applications, medical questionnaires, and so on. They are recorded, aggregated, and resold by information brokers without our knowledge and consent, as if they owned our good names. This process of assembly and dissemination is overly facile and extremely fast because of our modern information media. There are seldom sufficient checks and balances to these activities, and too many have access to these details about all of us.
Typically, the victims of such scams are elderly individuals who have a trusting relationship with SSA. Such advertisements cleverly play to their desire for more Social Security-related information or additional Social Security benefits. Many victims never even realize that they have been tricked into parting with their personal information--they simply assume that SSA never responded to their request for information.
Senior citizens need to be alerted continuously to the dangers of giving away such information. They must be told about toll-free numbers, such as our Fraud Hotline (1-800-269-0271), and Internet sites, such as our own, where they can check on suspicious government mailings. They must be asked to be suspicious of purported government mailings that offer free money in exchange for personal information.
The victims are often scarred emotionally. They feel violated and helpless -- and very angry. I’ve talked to many who were psychologically overwhelmed, because they could not stop what was happening to them. I’ve talked with elderly people who were terrified of losing their life savings and their homes. Their lives are seriously disrupted because someone else’s crooked credit history is recorded on their credit report. In 1999, a Privacy Rights Clearinghouse survey found the average amount of time spent by victims to regain their financial integrity was 175 hours, over a period of 2 years, at an average cost of over $800.
Congress enacted The Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act in 1998 and The Internet False Identification Prevention Act in 2000. The former was the first legislative response to the growing epidemic of identity thefts and imposed criminal sanctions for those who create a false identity or misappropriate someone else’s. The latter closed a loophole left by the first, enabling my office and other law enforcement organizations to pursue those who previously could sell counterfeit Social Security cards legally by maintaining the fiction that such cards were "novelties" rather than counterfeit documents. Both pieces of legislation are helpful, but both treat the disease of identity theft in its later stages, rather than at the onset.
The ability to prevent identity theft is even more essential. Previously, I’ve said that the time has come to put the SSN back into its box. While we cannot return the SSN to its original limited function because of the complexity of how the SSN is used today, we must take steps to limit its use and to limit the expansion of its use. First and foremost, the time has come to make the difficult determinations as to those uses that are appropriate and necessary, and those that are merely convenient. The SSN has become a de facto national identifier and its daily use has, in many instances, become a luxury we can no longer afford. Similarly, the availability of SSNs on public documents and over the Internet must come to a stop.
Congress should consider requiring the cross verification of SSNs through both governmental and private sector systems of records. Only in such a way can we combat and limit the spread of false of identification and SSN misuse. Similarly all law enforcement should be provided the same SSN verification capabilities currently granted to employers.
We need legislation that regulates the use of the SSN and provides enforcement tools to punish its misuse. If we are to head off the many crimes identity theft breeds--the fraud against public and private institutions, the ruin of people’s security, possibly even the disguising of terrorists as ordinary people--we need legislation with provisions such as:
In this vein, I applaud the decision announced last week by the Department of the Treasury to remove the SSN from all Treasury checks, including Social Security and Supplemental Security Income checks, as part of Treasury's efforts to protect the privacy of the customer's SSN and help reduce the opportunity for identity theft. This good decision needs to be codified into law.
Parallel legislative changes are needed that do not bear directly on identity theft, but which would also add protections for older Americans and others. They would include:
With such legislation, and the continuing dedication of the Government agencies involved, and of this Special Committee, I am confident that we can reverse the trend of identity theft against older Americans. SSA, my office, the Congress, and the American people must act together to accord both the SSN and our senior citizens the protections against identity theft that both deserve.
Thank you, and I’d be happy to answer any questions.