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Terrorism link to ID theft targeted

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WASHINGTON — Nearly 10 million Americans were victims of identity theft in 2002, a survey by the Federal Trade Commission found.

The cases, affecting 4.6 percent of the adult population, amount to nearly $48 billion in losses to businesses, nearly $5 billion in losses to individuals, and close to 300 million hours spent by victims clearing their names.

Federal officials are also concerned that terrorists may use stolen identities to assimilate into American society.

Identity theft is when someone's personal identifying information, including name, date of birth and Social Security number, are used by someone else to obtain credit or establish a false identify.

Patrick P. O'Carroll Jr., acting inspector general of the Social Security Administration, told a House subcommittee Tuesday that terrorists could obtain the nine-digit numbers by purchasing them, creating them, stealing them, using the number of a deceased individual or obtaining them from the Social Security Administration using fake documents.

As part of the Joint Terrorism Task Forces, O'Carroll said that the agency's New York field division investigated six men believed to have participated in an al-Qaida training camp and found that one of them had two Social Security cards.

"Once an individual has a Social Security number, he has the ability to work, buy a home and engage in a wide range of financial transactions including the raising and transferring of funds," O'Carroll told the Social Security subcommittee. "Socials Security numbers, therefore, become valuable tools for terrorists or others who wish to live in the United States and operate under the 'radar screen.' "

The panel's chairman, Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., R-Fla., introduced a bipartisan bill last year that would restrict the sale, purchase and display of Social Security numbers to the general public. The bill would greatly limit the use of Social Security numbers for identification purposes by public and private agencies.

"(Social Security numbers) are widely used as personal identifiers, even though their original purpose was simply to track earnings for determining eligibility and benefit amounts under Social Security," Shaw said.

But Brian P. McGuinness, former president of the Florida Association of Licensed Investigators, told the panel that restricting public access to Social Security numbers could interfere with helping victims of crimes such as kidnapping. The bill prohibits the use of an individual's Social Security number for the purpose of locating that person — a provision that would have made locating a kidnapped child in West Palm Beach more difficult.

The mother of the kidnapped child was able to furnish McGuinness with with her husband's date of birth and Social Security number. With that information he was able to enter the number into a database and learn that the man had used a West Palm Beach address to apply for credit, McGuinness told the panel.

"A five year journey of desperation, anguish and frustration was rewarded with success within a five minute period," by using a database search of public records, McGuinness said.