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Commentary

Social Security Numbers On The Justice Department's Web Site Could Lead To Identity Theft

I know a little something about identity theft, having spent the past four months trying to convince my bank that nearly $800 in purchases at Toy 'R' Us allegedly made using my Visa debit card were fraudulent. So when I opened an E-mail Monday morning that described an InformationWeek reader's efforts to alert the Justice Department that its Web site was revealing Social Security numbers on court docum
I know a little something about identity theft, having spent the past four months trying to convince my bank that nearly $800 in purchases at Toy 'R' Us allegedly made using my Visa debit card were fraudulent. So when I opened an E-mail Monday morning that described an InformationWeek reader's efforts to alert the Justice Department that its Web site was revealing Social Security numbers on court documents accessible through the site, I was a bit sensitive to the issue. When the reader pointed out that he had warned the Justice Department that he would go to the media if it didn't remove the Social Security number, I called the Justice Department to find out what was going on.Identity theft and fraud are a huge problem in this world of E-everything, and giving away someone's name and Social Security number is like giving a criminal a present wrapped with a bow. To its credit, the Justice Department returned my call inquiring about the Social Security number and the department's privacy policy. The main public affairs contact referred me to a spokesman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, and this spokesman E-mailed me a response to my questions the next day.

In the meantime, my original source E-mailed me with another example of a Social Security number that he had obtained through the Justice Department's site. He sent me a link to a PDF court document that revealed the Social Security number of a man accused of insurance fraud. I searched on the Justice Department's Web site using the accused man's name and was led to the PDF court document. I also searched for the information on Google and Yahoo and was delivered to the same document. Then, I went back to the Justice Department's main Web page and searched for "ssn." That led me to find even more Social Security numbers.

My hope is that, through the publication of my article, this problem will be remedied and that other sites will re-evaluate their own content for private information that can be used to commit identity theft. I still have no idea how someone got my debit-card information (the card never left my possession and the purchases were actually made at a Toys 'R' Us store, not online). Ultimately, I got my money back when the bank compared my signature with the fraudulent signature. It was a very stressful four months and an experience I don't wish for anyone else to share.

On a lighter note, Happy Holidays to all of InformationWeek's readers. I wish you all the best in the coming year.

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