Poll: Consumers Want Stronger Identity Protection
As Congress and federal regulators consider proposals aimed at reducing the risk of identity theft, a national poll by the Consumer Reports National Research Center reveals that an overwhelming majority of Americans want lawmakers to restrict the use and availability of Social Security numbers by businesses and government agencies.
According to the poll, 89 percent of Americans agree that state and federal lawmakers should pass laws restricting the use of Social Security numbers. Social Security numbers are particularly sensitive information because they can provide the key to unlocking a consumer's financial identity. The poll revealed that 87 percent of consumers have been asked in the past year to provide their Social Security number in whole or in part by a business or government agency. Requests come from a wide variety of businesses for purposes beyond credit, employment, or tax compliance. Many requests come from businesses that have no clear need to collect these numbers.
"The widespread use of Social Security numbers has made it easier for crooks to commit fraud and contributes to the estimated 10 million cases of identity theft every year," said Jeannine Kenney, Senior Policy Analyst with Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports. "It's time to restrict the availability of Social Security numbers to prevent this sensitive information from falling into the hands of identity thieves."
Consumers Union released the poll results in comments filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is studying the collection and use of Social Security numbers by the private sector. Several pending congressional proposals would restrict the sale, purchase, and display of Social Security numbers. Consumers Union recommends that the sale and purchase of the numbers be tightly restricted and that solicitation be prohibited except where required by law or where needed for credit, employment, tax compliance, or investment purposes. For a copy of Consumers Union's comments to the FTC with the poll results, see: http://www.consumersunion.org/pdf/RestrictSSNs.pdf .
The Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a telephone survey using a nationally representative probability sample of telephone households. 1,016 interviews were completed among adults aged 18+. Interviewing took place over August 16-19, 2007. The margin of error is +/- 3.1 percent at a 95 percent confidence level. Collection and Use of Social Security Numbers is Common Social Security numbers are used by businesses to identify and authenticate the identity of individuals and can be easily found on the Internet, in public records, on identification cards, and in mail sent to consumers.
The poll results confirm that solicitation and use of Social Security numbers is widespread:
• In the past year, 60 percent of consumers have been asked by a financial institution or retailer issuing credit to provide their Social Security number, while 49 percent have been asked to disclose their number to health care providers.
• Consumers also reported being asked to provide their Social Security number in the past year to a wide variety of other entities, including: employers or potential employers (44 percent); insurance companies (36 percent); government agencies other than the IRS or a state tax body (32 percent); college or other school (28 percent); service provider such as cable TV or cell phone carrier (26 percent); utilities (17 percent), and merchant or retailer (16 percent).
• More than four in ten Americans (42 percent) have been asked to provide their full or partial Social Security number on the phone or internet to access goods or services or to verify their identity to customer service representatives.
• One in seven Americans (14 percent) reported that they received postal mail (other than tax documents) bearing their own or a family member's Social Security number in the past year.
• Fifty two percent of Americans carry a card in their wallets that has their number on it. Consumers Concerned Widespread Use of Social Security Numbers Puts Them At Risk
The Consumer Reports poll found that Americans are concerned about the widespread availability of Social Security numbers and how businesses are using them:
• 78 percent would prefer not to provide their number, but are concerned about the consequences of refusing to do so.
• 91 percent agreed they are more vulnerable to identity theft when a business has their number.
• 89 percent agreed that companies should stop using Social Security numbers to identify customers.
• 96 percent agreed that companies should not be able to sell them.
Since January 2005, data security breaches have occurred at companies, schools, and government agencies involving an estimated 159 million records of sensitive consumer information, often including Social Security numbers. An overwhelming majority of Americans want to be notified when this information is lost or stolen. Ninety eight percent agreed that companies and government agencies should always be required to notify them if a database containing their Social Security number has been compromised. Virtually all Americans (97 percent) believe they should be provided with strong remedies to help thwart potential fraud if their Social Security number is involved in a data security breach.
• 68 percent agreed that they should be given the ability to freeze access to their credit files at no charge to stop new accounts from being opened unless they unlock the credit file with a PIN. Outside the event of a data security breach, 97 percent of Americans want the ability to freeze access to credit files to prevent thieves from opening fraudulent accounts.
• Only 12 percent preferred free credit monitoring when Social Security numbers have been involved in breaches, which is the remedy often provided by companies that fail to keep sensitive files protected.
"Americans are clearly concerned that the widespread use of Social Security numbers puts them at risk of fraud and want lawmakers to restrict this practice," said Kenney. "We need to get Social Security numbers off the Internet, out of our wallets, and out of our mail to help reduce the threat of identity theft."