Illegal immigration tied to identity theft

September 04, 2006|By New York Times News Service

Camber Lybbert thought it was a mistake when her bank told her that her daughter's Social Security number was on their files for two credit cards and two auto loans, with an outstanding balance of more than $25,000. Her daughter is 3 years old.

For Lybbert and her husband, Tyson, the call was the beginning of a five-month scramble trying to clear up their daughter's credit history. As it turned out, an illegal immigrant named Jose Tinoco had stolen their daughter's Social Security number, not in pursuit of a financial crime, but to get a job.

"From what I've picked up, he wasn't using it maliciously," Lybbert said. "He was using it to have a job, to get a car, provide for his family. My husband's like, `Don't you feel bad, you've ruined this guy's life?' But at the same time, he's ruined the innocence of her Social Security number because when she goes to apply for loans, she's going to have this history."

Though most people think of identity theft as a financial crime, one of the most common forms involves illegal immigrants using fraudulent Social Security numbers to conduct their lives. With tacit acceptance from some employers and poor coordination among government agencies, this practice provides the backbone of some businesses and a boon to the Social Security trust fund. During the 1990s, such mismatches accounted for about $20 billion in Social Security taxes paid.

"It's clear that it is a different intent or purpose than trying to get someone's MasterCard and charge it up, knowing they're going to get the bill," said Richard Hamp, an assistant attorney general in Utah. "But it has some similarities. It goes on the other person's credit record. Illegals are filing for bankruptcy, using someone else's number."

The Federal Trade Commission, which estimates that 10 million Americans have their identities stolen each year, does not distinguish between people who steal Social Security numbers so they can work and those who are out to steal money. Illegal immigrants make up nearly one of every 20 workers in America, according to estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center, and most are working under fraudulent Social Security numbers, which can be bought in any immigrant community or in Mexico.

Like most victims of identity theft, the Lybberts did not lose any money in the long run, but Camber Lybbert estimated that for four or five months she spent 30 hours or more a week making telephone calls, feeling passed from one agency or voice-mail system to another: the Social Security Administration; the attorney general; the three credit bureaus that issue credit ratings; and police departments in two cities.

The Social Security Administration each year receives 8 million to 9 million earnings reports from the Internal Revenue Service filed under names that do not match the Social Security numbers. Some are from workers whose employers botched their personnel forms or women who recently changed their names after marriage. Others are from people using a Social Security number that is not their own.

"It's basically a subsidy from migrant workers to the aggregate of American taxpayers," said Douglas S. Massey, a professor of sociology at Princeton who studies Mexican migration.

While no one knows how many of these mismatches are illegal immigrants, a Government Accountability Office study found that employers with the most mismatches were concentrated in industries that hire a lot of illegal immigrants, including agriculture, construction and food services.

The Social Security Administration is legally barred from sharing information with immigration or law enforcement agencies, or from telling the rightful owner of a Social Security number that someone else is working under his or her number, said Mark Hinkle, a spokesman.

Critics have called for better cooperation among the Social Security Administration, Internal Revenue Service and Department of Homeland Security to prosecute workers who use false Social Security numbers and companies that hire them.

"We've had this ridiculous situation where, theoretically, this information could be shared, and we could identify these people and repair the situation," said Marti Dinerstein, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit organization that supports tighter restrictions on immigration.

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