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

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Genealogy and the Specteral Myth of Identity Theft

The demographics of the genealogy community clearly create some shared issues; most of which concern older citizens. Regularly for the past few years, I have written posts addressing the issue of identity theft. I realize that my lone voice in the wilderness has almost no impact on the issues and concerns of the average American concerning this topic. The challenge is that our society is saturated with commercial enterprises that use fear as a motivating factor to make sales. Some of the concerns are real, like seatbelts in cars. For example, motivating people to use seatbelts through a fear of major injury, in the case of an automobile accidents, is based on solid evidence of the benefits of wearing a seatbelt.

When I was younger, we used to get the Readers Digest magazine in our home. Since I read everything I used to read the magazine. Every month they would have a new disease that was going to ravage the population. Twelve new diseases a year, every year. So the readers of the magazine would have something to worry about every month and so the magazine could sell more issues as people anticipated the next month's disease. Very early on, American advertising companies realized that fear sold their products. So they began inventing things for Americans to worry about; "Ring around the collar," and such as that. Some ads are even more blatant. See 5 Crazy Examples of Fear in Advertising.

So who benefits from making people concerned about identity theft? Commercial companies that are trying to sell programs to avoid identity theft. The consequences of "identity theft" seem astronomically bad. Regular examples of identity theft make the news rounds to keep people concerned. Statistics are used to show that this is a major crime problem in America and that the simple act of giving someone your Social Security Number can have catastrophic effects and ruin your life. The basic question is simple; is this true? Is identity theft really the fastest growing crime in America? More importantly, for genealogists, are there any activities that we participate in that put us in danger?

In my past writing, I have shown again and again, that identity theft has no consistent definition. It is a supposed crime, but very few states or other jurisdictions have defined it and the definitions vary from state to state if there is one. National crime statistics mention identity theft but do no define exactly what is being counted. National statistics are based on "reports" of identity theft not arrests and convictions. In addition, the definition is so broad as to include things that are clearly not what is used by the commercial companies to sell their products. For example, national statistics include any report of the loss of a credit card as a complaint concerning identity theft. Take out all the credit card fraud and identity theft, as a category, virtually disappears.

Think about it. How many people routinely give their credit card to a restaurant server to pay a bill? What is there to keep that server from copying the information from the card and using the number and security code and name to try to buy things online? Nothing. But this is called identity theft and makes up the vast majority of the reported complaints by Federal Agencies.

So then genealogists are afraid to put their family members in a surname book or in an online family tree because they might get their identities stolen? I have searched and have never found an instance of identity theft where the primary evidence against the accused was that the accused obtained the information from genealogical sources. Besides credit card misuse and theft (by the way if one of your children use your credit card without your permission, it is considered identity theft) by false pretenses, such as insurance fraud what is the problem?

One big issue right now is people who claim federal tax deductions for unrelated deceased children using the child's social security number. There is a claim that the numbers come from the Social Security Death Index or SSDI. So the U.S. Legislature has been considering legislation to restrict the use of the SSDI by genealogists on FamilySearch and and other websites. The problem is not the SSDI, the problem is the IRS fails to check the accuracy of Social Security Numbers submitted for exemptions even when all they would have to do is routinely look the numbers up in the database to see if the person claimed as a dependent was dead.  This is a political not a genealogical issue.

Ask yourself these questions and then take some time to educate yourself as to the real definition of identity theft:

Is your name private?
Is your address private?
Is your phone number private?
Is your place of birth private?
Is your date of birth private?
Is your Social Security Number private?

Then go to the nearest Motor Vehicle Department and apply for a driver's license. Or go to a doctor's office and fill out their standard medical information form. Or apply for a loan. Or buy a house. Or obtain a passport. Or buy a car and finance the balance due. Or apply for a credit card. Or apply for a job. Or obtain a state business license. Or join a health club.

Obviously the list can go on and on. If you would like me to go through the statistics again, I will be glad to do so but you might want to read the following blog posts first:


  1. I have to take issue with you on some items in your post, Jim.

    First, 'supposed crime'? Identity theft IS a crime!

    Posting your personal information to the world on a website is far different than handing your credit card to a waitress or waiter. Your doctor's office has to abide by HIPPA. Etc.

    Posting to the Internet family and children's names and information is a personal decision. NOT one that we all need to be 'guilted' into accepting as 'required' in genealogy. It is a highly personal decision and it is NOT one that is necessary to be a genealogy fan, pro, or amateur. We are allowed to share our information with whom we want and if we want. Why do so many try and 'force' us to do this?

    I have had my identity stolen. Not everyone out there in the world is a wonderful person. There are many predators and criminals. Someone tried to scam my mother immediately after my father died.

    I am sorry, but posting your family information is a purely personal decision and no one can decide that for you, but yourself!

    1. The points you raise are good ones and require a more detailed response. I will visit this topic again in a post.