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Bill would truncate Social Security numbers

Jay MacDonald

Every American carries a number from cradle to crypt: our Social Security number.

Throughout our lives, our nine-digit companion takes on a life of its own, winding up as our driver’s license number in some states, our
student ID in some colleges, our military ID if we serve in the armed forces and our Medicare number when we reach age 65.

By virtue of their permanence, our Social Security numbers have also grown into the all-purpose numeric can opener with which we file our income tax, acquire
mortgages and open bank accounts and credit cards.

And as Hamlet would put it, there’s the rub, because con artists also have come to covet our Social as their quickest means to slip into our
identity, steal our IRS refund and/or open and abuse a credit card in our name.

Should crooks have such easy access to our SSNs? Two members of Congress, who represent an area hard hit by identity thieves, say no, and are
taking a lesson from the recent history of credit cards, and the proper safekeeping of their digits.

The now-ubiquitous practice of abridging — or truncating — credit card numbers to the last four (Visa, MasterCard) or five
(American Express) digits on correspondence and merchant receipts is barely a decade old. Until the turn of the century, any schlub who cared to
dumpster dive for dollars could easily obtain our full credit card number and create havoc with it. That’s because the cards’ full numbers were
on the receipts for every restaurant meal, bar tab and impulse purchase from the weekend crafts show.

California led the way, as it often does in consumer affairs regulation, by passing legislation in 1999 requiring credit card truncation
statewide. Within the next few years, two dozen states made carbon copies of California’s law. Congress, leading from behind as it so often does
with consumer legislation, finally made credit card truncation the law of the land by passing the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act in
2003
. (That’s the same piece of legislation that required credit bureaus to give us a free yearly peek at our own credit data.)

A decade later, there’s similar legislative love showing up for our Socials.

Enter a new bill dubbed the Safeguarding Social Security Numbers Act of 2013, sponsored by U.S. Reps. Dennis Ross and Kathy Castor. He’s a
Republican, she’s a Democrat, and both represent the Tampa Bay region, which has been pummeled by tax refund hijacking and identity theft. Their
bill would prohibit all federal, state and local agencies from displaying complete Social Security numbers in any form and require the Social
Security Administration to work with other agencies to develop a uniform method to “de-identify” our Socials.

“Truncating Social Security numbers will help eliminate the ability to steal someone else’s identity and commit fraud,” says Ross
in a joint press release with Castor.

Why hasn’t Uncle Sam caught a clue and truncated our SSNs already? Well, the feds are getting there slowly, at least where those most
vulnerable to identity theft are concerned, according to AARP spokeswoman Allyson Funk.

“Long ago, when Social Security sent a check or correspondence, your Social Security number was part of the address that appeared
through the envelope window! That was disastrous and they got rid of that,” she says. “For Social Security beneficiaries, everyone now
must have direct deposit; Social Security no longer sends out paper checks. There is also legislation out there that seeks to have the Medicare number
either eliminated or redacted from Medicare cards.”

Will Social Security truncation finally come to pass? If the credit card industry, financial services and American merchants can redact our
account data, there’s little doubt that our government can and ultimately will do the same with our lifelong identifiers.

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  • Free

    I believe there are already massive amounts of laws restricting the use of ss# that are being violated. In Texas I do not believe you can get a license from the state for anything without giving ss#, even though that could be violation of pl 93-579 and be a felony according to usc title 42 section 408(a)8).