SACRAMENTO (CBS13/KPIX5) – They said it couldn’t be done. But three months after CBS13 reported that the state’s unemployment agency was putting millions at risk for identity theft, the California Employment Development Department (EDD) has had a change of heart.
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The state’s unemployment agency has finally stopped printing full Social Security numbers on the bi-weekly mailings sent out to millions collecting unemployment or paid family leave.
Most government agencies, banks, and even universities stopped using Social Security numbers as identifiers years ago. In 2010, California passed a law that prohibits printing the number “on any materials that are mailed.”
CBS13 (KPIX) first reported in July that viewers like Maxine Hines were horrified to discover the state still printing full Social Security numbers on documents mailed out every other week, to millions of Californians.
When she complained to the agency, Hines said, “She kind of laughed a bit and said, ‘Yeah a lot of people complain.’”
Internal agency emails obtained by Consumer Reporter Julie Watts revealed that employees asked for “standard language to respond” to those complaints following the initial reports.
In the follow-up story later that month, Watts reported that viewers began contacting her via email and social media to say they’d received other people’s EDD documents, with full Social Security numbers, in the mail.
“How in the world did this piece of paper get into an envelope addressed to me?” said Jody Howard, who received someone else’s mail.
When CBS13 asked the agency why it was still printing full Social Security numbers, they responded, “It is not administratively feasible…to print only the last 4 digits…”
Adding that the Federal Social Security Act requires it “to use Social Security numbers in the administration of its programs,” implying that it was therefore exempt from state laws that prohibit printing the number on mailed documents.
However, The Social Security Administration told CBS13 that there is no law that requires they print the numbers on mailed documents.
“Not only is the EDD in violation of existing California law, but I think they’ve also violated the common sense test,” said Assemblyman Mike Gatto, Chair of the California Assembly Committee on Privacy and Consumer Projection.
After seeing CBS13’s reports, Gatto and Assemblywoman Catherine Baker demanded that the agency make changes. And in record time, it has.
Turns out that it is “administratively feasible” to print only the last 4 digits of a Social Security number. Beginning this month, that’s all that will be printed on the EDD’s highest volume forms that are sent out every two weeks to millions of people.
By the end of the year, the agency expects to redact SSNs on 75 percent of all mailed documents.
In its response to Gatto, the agency states that it ultimately plans to replace the redacted SSN with “a unique identifier… assigned by the EDD to each claimant, providing the same functionality as a SSN.”
However, CBS13 also discovered that California is not the only state exposing SSNs on mailed documents.
Only three of the 15 largest states in the nation say they redact the full number on all mailed unemployment documents—Massachusetts, Florida, and Virginia. Like California, most of the other states claim that federal law requires that they print it.
According to the Social Security Administration, however, there is no such law. In a statement, the agency writes, “While the integrity of the SSN is a matter of great importance to the Agency, we are not aware of any Federal law that requires or prohibits use of the SSN by States on mailed documents.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein told CBS13 she is now looking into whether federal legislation is needed to officially prohibit printing Social Security numbers on mailed documents. Feinstein authored the Social Security Protection Act of 2010 which prohibits printing the number on checks from government agencies.
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NOTE: CBS13 Investigative Reporter Julie Watts was based at the CBS San Francisco station (KPIX) when this investigation began and has continued the work after moving to CBS Sacramento. The stories have aired on CBS stations across California.