WASHINGTON -- Identity theft has become a national crisis, with more Americans than ever losing personal information to scam artists, Congress was told Tuesday.
For $39.95 a thief can buy someone's Social Security number on the Internet, use it within minutes to get a credit card, then start buying big-ticket items like cars and jewelry.
"It's risk-free," said James Huse Jr., the Social Security Administration's inspector general, after a demonstration of Internet options. "Why wouldn't criminals do this?"
He told the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee that identity theft, "catalyzed by the Internet, has quickly become a national crisis."
About 1,400 people report fraud each week to the Federal Trade Commission. As many as 500,000 are victimized annually.
Huse said because complaints are rising, Congress should bring back, then pass, a privacy plan first debated last year to ban the sale of Social Security numbers and prohibit many companies from requiring customers to divulge their numbers. Ways and Means approved the bill last year, but it never came up for a House vote.
Major changes are opposed by banks, insurance companies, investment firms and pension fund overseers. Government officials also don't like the bill: It would ban the use of Social Security numbers as identifying tools, and the government's massive system of record-keeping would have to be changed.
Charles Bacarisse, a district clerk in Harris County, Texas, said many Social Security numbers are already easily available, and regulations "will increase the burdens and costs on everyone while doing little or nothing to enhance anyone's privacy."
The Social Security numbering system was created 65 years ago for the tracking of each American's earnings. The government promised it would never be used as a national identification card, but the numbers now are widely used personal identifiers. They are available on many public documents, such as driver's licenses and court records.
Rep. Gerald Kleczka, D-Wis., told colleagues on subcommittee that he was so tired of being asked for the information that he made up a series of numbers when required by a toy store to provide his Social Security number.
Requests like that would be restricted under a bill that Kleczka co-sponsored last year. The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., said the legislation was being refiled this week. Besides curbing excessive use, the bill also would ban governments and private companies from selling Social Security numbers or displaying them on public documents.
Nicole Robinson of Oxon Hill, Md., told the subcommittee she became a victim last year despite following anti-fraud tips like regularly obtaining her credit history to check for discrepancies. Robinson said a Texas woman got her information, apparently from health insurance records, and went on a $36,000 three-month buying spree.
"This crime continues to give me constant anxiety," said Robinson, who works for a government contractor and has had problems refinancing her home and getting loans.
Identity theft victims, like other crime victims, "feel personally violated," said Michael Fabozzi, a detective in New York. He said victims "are left to fend for themselves in attempting to clear their credit history and good name."
Fabozzi is the lead investigator in the case of Brooklyn restaurant busboy Abraham Abdallah, arrested in March and accused of trying to assume the identities of Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart and many others.
"The tale of the busboy cyberthief is a frightening testimony to the vulnerability of the entire e-commerce system," Fabozzi said. "By finding just a few holes in the system, Abdallah was allegedly on his way to stealing $100 million."
Huse said nearly 47,000 people reported thefts of Social Security numbers in the last fiscal year. A scam being investigated now involves a university, he said.
On the Net:
Federal Trade Commission identity theft site: http://www.consumer.gov/idtheft
House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee: http://waysandmeans.house.gov/socsec.htm