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“… there is no silver bullet”

Let’s hear it for Bernard F. McKay of Intuit (publishers of the popular TurboTax program) who was the one witness at yesterday’s hearing before the Senate Finance Committee’s Subcommittee on Fiscal Responsibility & Economic Growth1 who clearly stated the reality of identity theft.

And what was it that he said that’s so remarkable? He said, and I quote, that when it comes to solving the problems of identity theft, “… there is no silver bullet.”2

In other words, closing off access to the Social Security Death Master File (or SSDI as we genealogists know it) is not going to be any kind of easy fix to this growing international problem. He didn’t say the words, but I will: it’s time to stop using the SSDI as a punching bag.

McKay’s statement and those of other witnesses yesterday made it clear that identity theft and the filing of fraudulent tax returns is a huge business with enormous potential rewards for rings of organized criminals. He and other witnesses outlined the many many ways that identity thieves obtain the information they use to file fraudulent tax returns for hundreds of thousands of taxpayers — most of them living persons whose identities couldn’t have come from the SSDI.

Detective Sal Augeri of the Tampa Police Department noted that the organized crime rings may have once used SSDI information but “turned to individuals who worked in Assisted Living Facilities who would obtain necessary information on patients. Lists of names are now being sold by those having access to personal information in businesses, medical offices and schools.”3

Ronald A. Cimino, Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Tax Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, told of a woman from Alabama who obtained names and Social Security numbers of student loan borrowers from electronic databases of a former employer.4

Steven T. Miller, Deputy Commissioner for Services and Enforcement of the Internal Revenue Service, also cited the Alabama student loan case and gave other examples:

     • An Arizona man who used stolen identities of disabled individuals to claim more than $1 million in bogus tax refunds.

     • An Alabama woman who was the owner of a tax preparation business and used her business to gain information to file more than $1.1 million in fraudulent returns.5

Notice anything about these examples? The victims were alive, not dead. I repeat: their information couldn’t have come from the SSDI.

That didn’t stop some of those at the hearing from continuing to use genealogists and the SSDI as a punching bag. In particular, the sponsor of this bill, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) kept mentioning the death master file and the availability of the SSDI to genealogists despite the lack of evidence from the other witnesses about its use in identity theft and despite the emphasis by the witnesses on tax fraud using information about living persons.

And Nina E. Olson, the National Taxpayer Advocate, continued to harp on the notion that there’s some sort of privacy interest in SSDI data that should prevent its disclosure. But even Olson seems to be coming around a little bit. Instead of talking about closing SSDI access completely, even she admitted that “there are many legitimate users of DMF information, and we should not restrict access any more than necessary to thwart tax-related identity theft.”6

How much is necessary? Not very much. A delay as provided for in the bill under consideration yesterday — death information would not be disclosed in the year of death or the calendar year thereafter7 — is something we could live with if we have to, especially since the bill has a program to certify people who need access sooner.8

So overall the hearing was better overall than last month’s House hearing — the focus there was on closing the SSDI completely9 — but our SSDI access is still very much at risk.

As a community and as individuals, we need to stay on top of this. Even punching bags should know not to let down their guard.


SOURCES

  1. U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, Subcommittee on Fiscal Responsibility & Economic Growth, Tax Fraud by Identity Theft, Part 2: Status, Progress, and Potential Solutions (http://finance.senate.gov/hearings/hearing/?id=8c908260-5056-a032-525c-4f663b8d35f8 : accessed 20 Mar 2012).
  2. Statement of Bernard F. McKay, Chair, American Coalition for Taxpayer Rights, before the Senate Committee on Finance, Subcommittee on Fiscal Responsibility & Economic Growth, 20 March 2012 (http://finance.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/McKay%20Testimony.PDF : accessed 20 Mar 2012).
  3. Statement of Detective Sal Augeri, Tampa Police Department, before the Senate Committee on Finance, Subcommittee on Fiscal Responsibility & Economic Growth, 20 March 2012 (http://finance.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Augeri%20Testimony.pdf : accessed 20 Mar 2012).
  4. Statement of Ronald A. Cimino, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, the Tax Division, U.S. Department of Justice, before the Senate Committee on Finance, Subcommittee on Fiscal Responsibility & Economic Growth, 20 March 2012 (http://finance.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Cimino%20Testimony.pdf : accessed 20 Mar 2012).
  5. Statement of Steven T. Miller, Deputy Commissioner for Services and Enforcement, Internal Revenue Service, before the Senate Committee on Finance, Subcommittee on Fiscal Responsibility & Economic Growth, 20 March 2012 (http://finance.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/FinalSTEVEMILLERsenfinanceIDtheft20march20121.pdf : accessed 20 Mar 2012).
  6. Statement of Nina E. Olson, National Taxpayer Advocate, before the Senate Committee on Finance, Subcommittee on Fiscal Responsibility & Economic Growth, 20 March 2012 (http://finance.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Olson%20Testimony.pdf : accessed 20 Mar 2012).
  7. S. 1534, § 9(a), 112th Congress, 1st sess., Thomas.gov (http://http://thomas.loc.gov : accessed 19 Mar 2012).
  8. Ibid., § 9(b).
  9. See “SSDI Hearings: OUCH!,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 3 Feb 2012.
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