There's a "magic key" that computer hackers can use to open every door to your personal records -- including your bank account, credit cards, job history, health insurance, and... well, everything. That key is your Social Security number.
So you might think that, surely, this number is highly guarded to keep government agents, thieves or whomever from opening the door to your personal life. Sure it is, Pollyanna. How poorly guarded is it? Practically anyone can buy your very own personal Social Security number from various Web sites for a pittance. For example, secret-info.com will sell your number for $35, infosearch.com offers it for $45, and gum-shoes.com promises prying clients that "if the information is out there, our licensed investigators can find it."
The truth is that our Social Security numbers are everywhere, since all sorts of government agencies and corporations collect the numbers like they are nothing but statistical lint. Some insurance companies use them as account numbers and print them on the insurance card you carry in your wallet, and many universities use them as student ID numbers.
There's now a burgeoning, sometimes shadowy industry of data brokers, private investigators and others that collects and sells all of our "magic keys." Some of these outfits claim to have all sorts of screens and safeguards to keep our numbers out of the hands of, say, thieves. But the Washington Post approached three of these providers anonymously and two gave up the full Social Security number of a reporter within 24 hours, no questions asked.
What we have here is an unregulated system that relies solely on the diligence of data providers, who have a financial disincentive to be diligent. No law prohibits the sale of your Social Security number. But Senator Charles Schumer is sponsoring legislation to ban any such sale without an individual's permission.
For information, call his office: (202) 224-6542.
Publication date: 05/05/05