Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, September 20, 2010

The last time I checked I didn't have any credit card numbers stored in my genealogy files

You know how it is, once you start thinking about a subject you come up with all sorts of different ideas. In my last post I started to write about identity theft and genealogy. I think I ended up with more identity theft than genealogy. The question is this, does genealogical research somehow create a risk of identity theft? The simple answer is no and here is the first example. The Social Security Death Index (SSDI).

As genealogists we often (or should often) refer to the SSDI. Starting about the mid 1930s and for people who possibly died after about 1960, it is an extremely useful tool for finding an approximate death date. In addition, with the Social Security Number of the dead person, you can contact the Social Security Administration and for a fee, obtain a copy of the person's Social Security Application using Form 711. But what is the real purpose of the SSDI? Of course, it is to let anyone who cares know about the status of an individual's status with Social Security, so that banks, credit card companies, and government agencies have a centralized method of checking to see if someone is really dead. So there in absolutely free instant characters on your computer screen are all of the Social Security Numbers you can imagine.

The point of this example is that once a person is dead, even something like a Social Security Number is public information. Oh, by the way, Social Security Numbers are always public information. I am amused by people who think that they are protecting themselves from some dire consequences by refusing to disclose their Social Security Number. For example, my number was my student number at the university and also my service number in the Army. I literally had to put that number of every form I ever filled out at both the university and in the Army (for eight years). How private is that?

But, do we record Social Security Numbers for living individuals in our genealogy records? Well, not if you are mostly interested in dead people, which is what I though genealogy was all about. I have only a minimum amount of information about any living people in my records, and routinely block any living information from being included in any online database or even when sharing a file with others in my family.

So what good are old Social Security Numbers? Not much, even to determined identity thieves. What else do we have in genealogy records that might be detrimental to our health and welfare if obtained by an identity thief? My mother's maiden name? I already mentioned that issue. The real identity theft issue (if there is a real identity theft issue) deals with the core information from financial and medical records. I certainly hope that no one out there records their bank account records and their medical and insurance information in a genealogy file.

Let's go to the U.S. Census Bureau website and see what the most current statistics say about identity theft. Hmm, this might be more difficult than simply looking. Identity theft isn't listed as a category of crime! The first thing you notice from the Crimes and Crime Rates by Type of Offense is that all crimes are on the decline, the rates per 100,000 of population have dropped significantly since 1980. OK, they do have a category for "Fraud and Identity Theft -Consumer Complaints by State: 2008. This information comes from the Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book from the Federal Trade Commission.

Here is another Hmmm. Quoting from the FTC, "Begun in 1997 to collect fraud and identity theft complaints, the CSN now has more than 7.2 million complaints, including those about credit reports, debt collection, mortgages, and lending, among other subjects." Here are the actual categories and percentages for the category of identity theft:
Credit card fraud (20%) was the most common form of reported identity theft followed by
government documents/benefits fraud (15%), employment fraud (15%), and phone or utilities fraud (13%).
Other significant categories of identity theft reported by victims were bank fraud (11%) and loan fraud
• Government documents/benefits fraud is now the second most common reported type of identity
theft after credit card fraud. Fraudulent tax return-related identity theft, a subtype of government
documents/benefits fraud, has increased nearly six percentage points since calendar year 2006.
I happen to live in Arizona, the state with the highest reported number of complaints for identity theft. The total number of identity theft complaints for the entire U.S. in 2008 was 313,982 about half of the complaints for fraud and far less than the media reported 10,000,000 per year. The FTC keeps track of thirty different categories of complaints. Interestingly, over half of the complaints report no money lost. $0. Nothing. Only 3% of the complaints report more than $5,000 lost.

If you don't believe me look for yourself at the link above. Identity theft is not a significant issue and surely not a real concern to genealogists as genealogists. Keep track of your credit cards. Watch your statements. Don't fall for online or e-mail frauds and you will likely avoid problems.

1 comment:

  1. We live in rural New Hampshire, one of the states with the lowest crime rates, but we were struck twice with identity theft! One was from a local store where we used a credit card nine months earlier (it was immediately canceled and caused us no further problems), and one was when our daughter applied to colleges and gave her SS# and our SS#s for financial aid. She was accepted at seven colleges, and one that she DID NOT attend had over five thousand SS#'s stolen from student records, including two years of students who had only APPLIED and not attended. Not a genealogy case, but it goes to show how easily this can happen, even years later to records stored anywhere.