July 2, 1995 in Nation/World

Crooks Do A Number On Her She Finds 4 Others Use Her Social Security Id, Then Gets A Dizzying Bureaucratic Runaround

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Barb Adjemian was so afraid someone had stolen her identity she called a private detective.

An illegal immigrant had used her Social Security number. She couldn’t kick that thought from her mind.

State and federal authorities told her to relax, that Pedro Cordova probably wouldn’t bring her more grief.

But how could she not worry? What if he was still using her number? What if he was getting credit cards, or welfare, or committing crimes?

It was her number! She felt violated.

So the South Hill single mom found a private eye in the Yellow Pages, then asked him to run a computer check on her Social Security number.

What popped onto his screen in April was worse than she feared. It also sent her on an odyssey that taught her about a growing national concern: Social Security numbers are not secure.

She learned that complaints about Social Security card fraud have doubled in the past year, and that the scam costs consumers and taxpayers billions.

She discovered that the rampant misuse of the numbers imperils credit ratings, IRS relations and federal pensions.

When the private eye punched in Adjemian’s nine-digit number, a national database showed that it belonged to five people.

Barbara A. Adjemian.

Pedro Cordova.

Gustavo Flores.

Daniel Romance.

Orlando Lopez.

“It’s frustrating,” Adjemian said, her hands shaking.

“It’s just frustrating.”

Not enough judges and prosecutors

Edward Nelson is one of many government workers who has seen a harried Adjemian storm his office.

A veteran agent with the U.S. Border Patrol, Nelson views Adjemian’s saga as almost commonplace. He knows of one Washington woman who had 12 immigrants using her Social Security number.

The scam is ripe in Washington. The state’s estimated illegal alien population jumped from 40,000 to 100,000 during the past decade. Fake Social Security cards now sell for $20 in Central Washington.

During a raid this spring, the Border Patrol found that 23 of 25 Yakima Valley workers were illegal immigrants from Mexico. Twelve were using someone else’s Social Security number.

There isn’t much anyone can do about the fraud now, Nelson said. “There aren’t enough prosecutors and judges to handle it.”

Instead, the Border Patrol hunts for fake-document kingpins. At a recent bust, a Central Washington dealer was caught with about 800 bogus green cards and Social Security cards.

The two documents are all that immigrants need to work in the United States.

Nelson said fake document dealers often use the same Social Security numbers again and again. “They aren’t fussy. They don’t care how many times they use it.”

Nelson traces the blossoming problem to the 1986 Immigration Reform Act that made employers demand a Social Security card before hiring an immigrant. The result: a prolific fake document industry.

Nelson said many Border Patrol officials want a revised Social Security card that works more like a credit card, with possibly a picture and a password.

It’s illegal to use someone else’s Social Security number, but the penalty is trivial for illegal aliens: usually just a free ride back to Mexico.

Adjemian, 44, isn’t sure how her Social Security number fell into someone else’s hands. She suspects a thief nabbed it from her purse at a California motel five years ago.

What she knows for sure is that Pedro Cordova’s name appeared under her number when she went to the state Employment Security Office in September 1993. The clerk told her not to worry, that Cordova’s name was deleted from her file.

But when Adjemian visited the office again last January, Cordova’s name was still there - along with his earnings for an Issaquah, Wash., employer.

Adjemian soon realized there is no brochure or guide to tell fraud victims how to repair and protect their records. She also learned it can be a dizzying runaround trying to figure it out.

The FBI told her to call the prosecutor’s office. The prosecutor’s office told her to call the FBI. Crime Check told her to call Spokane police. The cops sent her back to Crime Check, which then explained it was a federal matter.

The Spokane Social Security office told her it just issues the numbers and isn’t responsible for them. She called the agency’s fraud line, but couldn’t get a call back. She wrote. Still nothing. She was referred to the agency’s public affairs specialist. That number was disconnected.

Finally, she requested a Social Security Administration hearing to air her complaints about the agency’s handling of her case. It would be four months before she got a response.

The IRS was even more casual in its reply. Adjemian would be contacted in “two or three years if there is a problem.”

She wrote Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., and Rep. George Nethercutt. A Nethercutt aide later assured her the congressman was working on her issue “behind the scenes.”

Along this bureaucratic trail, Adjemian learned about the cost of rampant immigration, and how some taxpayer benefits to immigrants - such as supplemental security income - are rising 16 percent a year. No wonder, she thought.

She plugged away at her own case, figuring with more information she could fix it, and maybe help others avoid similar messes.

“I thought as an average citizen I could come up with some solutions,” she said. “I didn’t mean to get into it this heavily.”

‘Starting to crush us’

Robert Ellis Smith routinely hears from distraught people who discover strangers using their Social Security numbers.

“People are co-opting their identity and there is some serious stress from this,” said Smith, author of the Rhode Island-based Privacy Journal newsletter.

Smith called the misuse of Social Security numbers a national epidemic. “Consumers need to understand that their Social Security number should be protected. It’s actually a very confidential number.”

But the IRS puts the numbers in its address windows on tax returns. Some states slap it on driver’s licenses; universities use it for student I.D. And unlike many states, Washington allows merchants to request the numbers to verify checks.

Smith argues this all encourages fraud for which no agency feels responsible.

Sgt. Gary Smith sees the other end of the fraud. The investigator for the Spokane County Sheriff’s Department said check and credit card fraud doubled in the past year. “The sheer numbers are just starting to crush us.”

At the core of the scams is often a stolen Social Security card, he said. Of 10 recent petty thefts in Spokane, seven victims had lost their cards.

In early May, Adjemian’s private investigator, Tom Steeley of Universal Consultants, helped her get the addresses of three immigrants using her number.

She had information from the state that Pedro Cordova earned $5,284 at Polymer Technologies in Issaquah, during the third quarter of 1994.

He was earning money on her number.

But still nobody was much interested in chasing down Cordova - except Adjemian. She sent a formal request to the state to learn more about the Bellevue resident’s work record.

She was told that without Cordova’s permission, the Privacy Act protected him from any such inquiry. “I feel like he’s got more rights than I do as an American citizen,” Adjemian said. “I don’t think he deserves it.”

The only solution the Social Security Administration or anyone else offered was this: Change your number and be done with it.

Adjemian soon found that too can cause problems.

“What’s going to happen when she tries to open a new account?” asked Sgt. Smith. “What if they cross-reference to the old number, and ask, ‘Why did you change your Social Security number?”’

Plus, Adjemian thought changing it sounded about as irrational as changing her birth date.

“It’s my number,” she said.

Selling cards for money

Ron Cofiell listened closely to Adjemian’s plight. The San Francisco-based investigator for the Social Security Administration explained the agency’s predicament:

“We get literally 50 complaints or more every month on that sort of thing. We only have four investigators. So, it’s impossible to really attempt to conduct investigations.”

Cofiell said the shrinking agency no longer has investigators in Washington or Oregon. Tracking illegals is mission impossible anyway.

“Illegal aliens are here today, gone tomorrow. Just had a call from a Kentucky man who said someone near Spokane is using his Social Security number.”

Cofiell urged people to guard their numbers and destroy needless papers that expose it.”Why would you carry your Social Security card in your purse? These things sell for money on the street.”

Cofiell said there is no easy solution for people like Adjemian, other than trying to set the record straight with credit bureaus, the IRS, the Social Security Administration and maybe some others too.

“There is no magic number you call and say, ‘Please straighten out my accounts and I don’t want to have these problems ever again.”’

Adjemian recently tried to call Pedro Cordova in Bellevue and tell him to stop piggy-backing on her number.

His telephone number wasn’t listed, but a Bellevue librarian found the number corresponding to his address.

Adjemian dialed. A man with a Spanish accent answered. She asked if Pedro Cordova was around. He said nobody by that name lived there. She made up a story about how she had met Pedro. Still nothing. What did the man say his name was? Flores?

What would Adjemian have said if Pedro got on the line? “I would have told him I understand he must be pretty desperate, but ‘Stop using my Social Security number!”’

Her father told her to keep quiet. “He thinks I should just change my number and be done with it.”

She didn’t listen. She sent letters to Rush Limbaugh and David Letterman. “More people watch Letterman than the news.”

Still getting the runaround

In mid-June, four months after Adjemian asked the Social Security Administration for a hearing, she got her response: No.

Adjemian applied for the wrong type of hearing, explained Dolly Peterson, manager of the agency’s office of hearings and appeals.

“That’s what I’ve gotten all along - a runaround!” Adjemian said.

The agency also reported that its own check of Adjemian’s records detected no problems with her number.

Adjemian has a growing, messy file that shows otherwise. And her private eye, Steeley, isn’t surprised that the government didn’t kick up the same information he did. He’s seen it before.

“I use different (data) bases than they do,” said Steeley, noting he pays to tap into the nation’s three major credit bases.

Adjemian now craves resolution. She’s even toying with the idea of changing her number. But the notion still agitates her.

She worries things could get worse. Her credit and earnings records haven’t been devastated yet, as far as she knows. But it still rattles her that her identity and her future might be linked to four strangers.

Pedro Cordova.

Gustavo Flores.

Daniel Romance.

Orlando Lopez.

“I think about them. I wonder what it would be like to (talk) to them. I’m sure they have a story to tell, but that doesn’t mean it’s right to do what they’ve done.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo; 2 graphics: 1. Securing your Social Security number 2. Social security fraud

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. SECURING YOUR SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER Here are some of the problems victims face by fraudulent use of their Social Security numbers: POTENTIAL PROBLEMS Social Security benefits can be delayed while records are sorted to see how much the card owner truly paid into the federal pension system. Credit ratings can be temporarily ruined. Victims must notify the nation’s major credit bureaus about the fraud. Keeping the records clean may require repeated follow-up contacts. The IRS may hold onto income tax refunds while it sorts out the accurate earnings of the victim. The IRS also may try to demand taxes be paid on the culprit’s earnings. Other legal and financial problems could result from the fraudulent use of a Social Security number to get welfare benefits, and other illegal actions.

SAFETY TIPS Don’t carry Social Security cards in wallet or purse. Dispose of or hide documents that reveal the number. Try not to give the number over the telephone to strangers, or disclose it while purchasing something. Check with the Social Security Administration at least once every three years to make sure earnings records are accurate.

Source: Investigators and officials in the Border Patrol, the Social Security Administration and some personal privacy experts. Staff Graphic: Warren Huskey

2. SOCIAL SECURITY FRAUD History of the Social Security number 1935 - Created amid fears it would become a universal identifier for Americans. Consequently there were repeated assurances it would only be used to administer the federal pension system. In the early years, SS cards were marked ‘NOT FOR IDENTIFICATION PURPOSES.’ 1961 - The number was adopted by the IRS as the individual taxpayer identifier. 1967 - U.S. military decided to use the Social Security number as a military serial number. 1970s - Many universities and banks began using it as identifiers. To date - Now many states request the number from anyone who registers to vote. Most brokerage firms demand a Social Security number. Some hotels, grocery stores and other businesses request it. Many landlords also want it for credit-checking purposes.

Complaints about the misuse of Social Security numbers nationwide have jumped in recent years… 1992 - 1,569 1993 - 1,685 1994 - 3,037 …so have complaints involving improper efforts to obtain Social Security number. 1992 - 54 1993 - 376 1994 - 393

Source: The inspector general of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department and staff research. Staff graphic: Warren Huskey

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. SECURING YOUR SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER Here are some of the problems victims face by fraudulent use of their Social Security numbers: POTENTIAL PROBLEMS Social Security benefits can be delayed while records are sorted to see how much the card owner truly paid into the federal pension system. Credit ratings can be temporarily ruined. Victims must notify the nation’s major credit bureaus about the fraud. Keeping the records clean may require repeated follow-up contacts. The IRS may hold onto income tax refunds while it sorts out the accurate earnings of the victim. The IRS also may try to demand taxes be paid on the culprit’s earnings. Other legal and financial problems could result from the fraudulent use of a Social Security number to get welfare benefits, and other illegal actions.

SAFETY TIPS Don’t carry Social Security cards in wallet or purse. Dispose of or hide documents that reveal the number. Try not to give the number over the telephone to strangers, or disclose it while purchasing something. Check with the Social Security Administration at least once every three years to make sure earnings records are accurate.

Source: Investigators and officials in the Border Patrol, the Social Security Administration and some personal privacy experts. Staff Graphic: Warren Huskey

2. SOCIAL SECURITY FRAUD History of the Social Security number 1935 - Created amid fears it would become a universal identifier for Americans. Consequently there were repeated assurances it would only be used to administer the federal pension system. In the early years, SS cards were marked ‘NOT FOR IDENTIFICATION PURPOSES.’ 1961 - The number was adopted by the IRS as the individual taxpayer identifier. 1967 - U.S. military decided to use the Social Security number as a military serial number. 1970s - Many universities and banks began using it as identifiers. To date - Now many states request the number from anyone who registers to vote. Most brokerage firms demand a Social Security number. Some hotels, grocery stores and other businesses request it. Many landlords also want it for credit-checking purposes.

Complaints about the misuse of Social Security numbers nationwide have jumped in recent years… 1992 - 1,569 1993 - 1,685 1994 - 3,037 …so have complaints involving improper efforts to obtain Social Security number. 1992 - 54 1993 - 376 1994 - 393

Source: The inspector general of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department and staff research. Staff graphic: Warren Huskey


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email