JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Millions of motorists across the nation are carrying around driver’s licenses containing their Social Security numbers – a potential jackpot for identity thieves.
Privacy experts strongly warn against the practice. And a recent federal law ordered states to stop issuing licenses displaying Social Security numbers.
Yet some states continue to do so, a review by the Associated Press has found. And in other states that have dropped the practice, it could take up to eight years before people who have licenses with Social Security numbers on them are issued new ones.
A sampling of just 11 states identified more than 14 million motorists with Social Security numbers on their licenses.
A name, birthdate and address are valuable pieces of information for someone who wants to steal another person’s identity and obtain loans and credit cards. But a Social Security number is the richest prize of them all.
“For a thief, getting a wallet that has a Social Security number on it is like finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – it is the most useful item for a personal identity thief,” said Beth Givens, director of the San Diego-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.
About 8.9 million U.S. adults were victims of identity fraud in 2005, according to a survey released by the Better Business Bureau. One contributing factor is believed to be the availability of Social Security numbers on driver’s licenses and health insurance cards that people carry around in their wallets and purses and display when writing checks at stores.
A 2003 survey by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators identified 17 states and the District of Columbia as places where Social Security numbers were put on licenses. In all of those jurisdictions, drivers could ask that the number be put on or left off. But in some cases, drivers were encouraged by motor vehicle clerks to put their Social Security numbers on their licenses for the sake of convenience.
In 2004, President Bush signed a law barring states from putting Social Security numbers on new or renewed driver’s licenses, identification cards or vehicle registrations. A follow-up survey by the AP found that most states have changed their policies and are complying with the federal law. But some are not.
Mississippi’s driver services director, Maj. Joseph Rigby, cited a state law allowing the practice. “Right now, we still have a state law on the books that I have to abide by,” he said.
At least three other states and the District of Columbia are still putting Social Security numbers on licenses but are reversing their policies.
States are also removing Social Security numbers from licenses when people renew them. But because licenses are valid for several years, the change is slow.
In most states, drivers must pay a fee to remove their Social Security numbers before their licenses expire. In Missouri it is $12.50.
Despite the privacy risks, some motorists have no intention of dropping their Social Security numbers any earlier than they must.
Karri Hoener renewed her Missouri license just weeks before the federal ban became law. She kept her Social Security number on it. Hoener has no worries about identity theft and figures her Social Security number is easier to remember than some randomly assigned string of digits.
“I just chose the lazy way out,” said Hoener, 28, a veterinary clinic manager from rural Owensville, “because I know the number – and everybody asks you for your driver’s license number.”