Wednesday, April 13, 2005

More on Identity Theft

Yesterday’s news that LexisNexis had exposed the personal information of 310,000 people to criminals (not the 32,000 LexisNexis initially reported in March) has caused the simmering issue of identity theft to reach a low boil. I’ve been carrying on an off-line debate with several prominent attorneys on this issue. One took issue with my recent criticism of the IRS and the Massachusetts DOR for continuing to put social security numbers on tax liens that are recorded at the registry of deeds. The argument in favor of including social security numbers on tax liens is that access to this absolutely unique identifier gives the conveyancing attorney the certainty required in determining that a lien does (or more importantly, does not) relate to the party involved in the pending real estate transaction. And, as between this need for certainty and the likelihood of public disclosure of the social security number of a tax delinquent, well, just pay your taxes on time and you won’t have to worry about it. I see two flaws in this approach. First, as another of my corresponding counselors points out, you can usually do the same thing using the last four digits of the social security number rather than the complete number. It is highly unlikely that the last four digits of your innocent client’s and the tax delinquent’s social security numbers would match. Why, that’s as inconceivable as the Red Sox winning the World Series. But I digress. In the unlikely event that the four numbers do match, then the attorney could inquire further. The second problem is that today’s tax delinquent is tomorrow’s upstanding citizen. People, especially those who dabble in real estate for a living, tend to experience wide financial swings. While their economic status changes over time, their social security numbers always stay the same. More on this tomorrow.

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