U.S. Attorney’s office admits Social Security numbers aren’t secure online

Thursday, June 18, 2009 at 12:00am

Williamson County Chamber of Commerce members were treated to a crash course in identity theft from the U.S. Attorney’s Office on Wednesday with the sobering reality that there is little that can be done to safeguard themselves from theft.

The meeting room of the Williamson County Library was packed with elderly chamber members, law enforcement officials, as well as a few business owners and one representative from the Better Business Bureau to hear U.S. Attorney Ed Yarbrough and Assistant U.S. Attorney John Webb, who’s in charge of white-collar crime at Yarbrough’s office and frequently lectures about fraud and identity theft.

According to Webb, a social security number is the most valuable piece of information an identity thief can obtain because it is “the key authenticator and identifier for everything we do, unfortunately.”

Much of Webb’s presentation to chamber members focused on minimizing the availability of personal information. When an audience member asked if there were any computer programs he could use to hide his data, Webb replied that there were none and said that if a hacker “knows how to do it, there is no protection.”

A 2008 survey by the Government Accountability Office found that 85 percent of the 100 largest counties make SSNs available online or in bulk. No matter how many precautions that a citizen may take, ultimately there is little they can do to safeguard themselves from theft, the survey found.

This comes as no surprise to anyone who remembers the 2008 theft of laptops containing 337,000 Davidson County voter registrations, or the missing flash drive containing 9,000 TSU students’ social security numbers, or the Williamson county employee who mistakenly posted students’ social security numbers on a Web page.

While the purpose of the meeting was ‘informational,’ neither Webb nor Yarbrough made mention of any governmental mobilization to reduce the availability of social security numbers to the public or offer preventative measures. It also not known whether Yarbrough’s office plans to do similar meetings in Davidson or other counties that have had to deal with indentity theft.

Webb acknowledged that all levels of government have reacted slowly to the problem of identity theft. When asked what the government had done to ensure the security of its citizens, he offered a candid reply: “Not enough…unless some senator gets his identity stolen, he’s not worried about it.”

Yarbrough launched the seminar by relating the case of United States v. Nancy Jean Siegel, who was recently sentenced to 33 years in jail for second-degree murder and fraud.

Siegel made a career out of stealing identities, he said, including her own daughters’, eventually strangling an elderly man and dropping his body off in a trunk just to receive social security benefits.

Near the end of Wednesday’s session, an older gentleman asked Yarbrough which computer program he used to protect his data. Yarbrough grinned and admitted he did not have access to the Internet, was a self-proclaimed Luddite, and “ready to go back to wampum (the early tribal tool for recording and relaying information).”

Maybe Wednesday’s message was this: If a U.S. Attorney is too scared to put his information online, perhaps we should all exercise a bit more caution as well.