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

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Genealogists are victims of propaganda on a large scale

I was listening to a National Public Radio broadcast about the "theft" of children's Social Security Numbers and how this is such a problem. The commentator interviewed someone whose child's Social Security Number had been used by someone else. This was not situation where the child was deceased but living. One key statement by the interviewee was that she had absolutely no response or help from the Social Security Administration (SSA). In other words, the implication was, that the SSA apparently will do nothing to verify ownership of a Social Security Number. My problem with this situation is that it is identified as "Identity Theft." In actuality, it is a breakdown in the Social Security System. See Identity Theft: Kids Don't Know They're Victims.

This story on the radio was propaganda. As genealogists, we are aware that the U.S. Congress is in the process of passing extreme limitations on the use of the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) based on allegations of misuse of the information to claim fraudulent tax refunds. See the latest announcement dated 8 May 2012 from the Committee on Ways and Means. The House Ways and Means Committee solution is to severely limit access to the SSDI.

The SSDI is one of the most valuable records for ancestral research because it helps bridge the gap between the present and other genealogical records such as the 1940 U.S. Federal Census.  Loss of use of this record would be a tragedy to the genealogical community.

The solution to the problem is readily apparent to anyone who thinks about it for more than five minutes but seems to elude those in Congress and in the national media. What is needed is improved internal security in the SSA to verify the identity of users of Social Security Numbers. Did I say "improved?" Apparently, no effort is made whatsoever to verify Social Security Number usage. As I have pointed out in the past, my Social Security Number was also my military ID number and my student number while attending the University of Utah. In addition, as we all know, doctors, lawyers and others routinely record the Social Security Numbers of their clients and patients. In effect, Social Security Numbers are being used for identity purposes when there are no safeguards in place to assure that the person using the number is the owner of that number. If someone "stole" my Social Security Number, they could do so from hundreds of sources almost with impunity.

Unlike a driver's license, Social Security Cards have no further identifying information. No photograph, no fingerprint, no bar code, nothing at all. Just a piece of cardboard.

At the heart of this problem is the often repeated assertion that "Identity Theft" is rampant in the United States and that it is the "fastest growing crime in America." Both these statements were made in the recent radio broadcast.  The National Public Radio broadcast referenced an article published by the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) entitled, "Identity theft is America's fastest growing crime." However, the USPIS article contains no further references and is undated. The USPIS article goes on to state:
Last year alone, more than 9.9 million Americans were victims of identity theft, a crime that cost them roughly $5 billion.

The number of ID theft victims and their total losses are probably much higher. It's hard to pin down, because law enforcement agencies may classify ID theft differently--it can involve credit card fraud, Internet fraud, or mail theft, among other crimes.
Unfortunately, and significantly, the date of the "last year" is not identified. The source of the assertion concerning victims is not identified and there are no links to any additional information. 

Propaganda is defined as information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view. As genealogists we are victims of propaganda on a national scale.

At the heart of this issue is the definition of "Identity Theft." This term is being used as a bugaboo to scare the uninformed. The fact is, as stated by the USPIS, there is NO COMMONLY ACCEPTED DEFINITION OF THE TERM.

If you spend the time to research the Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, you will search in vain for any mention of the term "Identity Theft" or any way to correlate the statistics with the alleged activities. You can go to another source, the United States Census Bureau, Abstract on Law Enforcement, Courts, & Prisons: Crimes and Crime Rates. There is a category for Fraud and Identity Theft--Consumer Complaints by State: 2010. As those figures show and state, they are based on unverified complaints reported by consumers. The Census Bureau figures are based on the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book, for January–December 2010, March 2011.

So maybe, if you keep going with this string of borrowed sources, you will ultimately find some support for the USPIS figure? Well, the total crime figure from the U.S. Census, including frauds of all kinds show a total of 1,088,411 for the entire country in 2010 and only 250,854 Identity Theft victims. Where are the 9.9 million Americans?

So, what does the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) say? The most recent report on their site for Identity Theft is 2006 and the figure quoted is 246,035 complaints, not prosecuted crimes and this is a decrease from the 2005 figure of 255,613. What does the FTC include in Identity Theft?
  • Credit Card Fraud
  • Phone or Utilities Fraud
  • Bank Fraud
  • Employment Related Fraud
  • Government Documents/Benefits Fraud
  • Loan Fraud
  • Other Identity Theft
  • Attempted Identity Theft
Government Documents and Benefits Fraud constitutes only 10% of the total. In other words, less than 25,000 cases of government documents fraud reported in the U.S. in 2006 and showing a decline and no figures for later years.

My conclusion? Where are the statistics to support the claims about Identity Theft? It looks like to me that there is nothing to support the claims and we, as genealogists are victims of systematic propaganda.

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