- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 21, 2002

More than 100,000 noncitizens may have obtained Social Security numbers in 2000 using fraudulent documents, according to a Social Security Administration report examining use of the numbers in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

James G. Huse Jr., the agency's inspector general, said the agency has been issuing numbers to noncitizens without completely verifying the authenticity of the supporting documents.

In 2000, that resulted in potentially 8 percent of 1.2 million new numbers assigned to noncitizens based on fraud.

And, he said, even with a post-September 11 push to coordinate with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the agency is still not ready to authenticate requests for numbers when the supporting documents are issued by the INS.

"As a result, for at least several more months, [the Social Security Administration] will continue to issue SSNs to noncitizens without obtaining independent verification of evidentiary documents from the issuing agency," he wrote in the report, released earlier this month.

As Social Security numbers have become a de facto national identifier, their use and abuse has grown. The numbers are often the key to getting driver's licenses, bank accounts and credit cards in the United States.

Some of the 19 hijackers in the September 11 terrorist attacks opened accounts using fraudulently obtained Social Security numbers and then used the money in those accounts to pay for flight-training school. Also, a nationwide crackdown has found hundreds of persons employed in restricted areas at airports who used fraudulently obtained Social Security numbers.

Norman A. Willox Jr., chairman of the National Fraud Center and chief officer for Privacy, Industry and Regulatory Affairs at LexisNexis, said the amount of fraud identified in the inspector general's report isn't surprising.

"We're just starting to think through this more. We don't have real good ways to authenticate people," he said, though he said there are models in the private sector which have been able to put together similar information systems on a smaller scale.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican who last year requested a review of how terrorists obtained and misused Social Security numbers, said the agency has been lax in controlling the numbers.

"Additional steps are being taken to make the process more secure, but it's still far from perfect," he said.

The findings in Mr. Huse's report are preliminary. He is also investigating how well the agency does in spotting false documents provided by noncitizens.

Mr. Huse said the Social Security agency in the past rejected calls to improve the process, arguing that the extra scrutiny did not justify the resulting delay in issuing numbers to those noncitizens who are entitled to them.

Since September 11 some of that resistance has disappeared, he said, but there are still technical issues to work out with the INS.

Bill Strassberger, a spokesman for the INS, said the problem comes when an initial electronic check can't verify documents' authenticity and Social Security employees have to do a secondary check of the paper documents themselves.

There have been several programs designed to help Social Security employees use INS electronic data, but they have failed because of lack of funds.

"We need their cooperation and at least some funding on their part," Mr. Strassberger said, referring to the Social Security Administration.

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