SACRAMENTO (CBS13/KPIX5) — State agencies across the country are putting millions at risk for identity theft, while Congress has largely ignored a bill that could put an end to the practice. Six months after a CBS13 (KPIX) investigation pressured one of California’s largest agencies to stop printing social security numbers on mailed unemployment documents, we’ve discovered people collecting disability benefits in California are now at risk. CBS13 has learned the same is true for millions of Americans in at least 34 other states.
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“I was upset. The EDD is jeopardizing my identity” said Whitney, who did not want to reveal his last name. Whitney says he was forced to invest in a locking mailbox after discovering the state agency that handles disability benefits was printing his full Social Security number (SSN) on each of his mailed documents.
His worries were exacerbated by a rash of mail thefts in his neighborhood as he was shocked to find the agency still printing his SSN after seeing our reports on the topic last year.
First we revealed that the Employment Development Department was violating state privacy laws by printing full Social Security numbers on bi-weekly mailings sent out every two weeks to millions of Californians.
A state law passed in 2010 “prohibits printing the number on any documents that are mailed.”
Then we revealed that the EDD repeatedly sent the sensitive information to the wrong address.
In its defense, the agency told us that federal law, which supersedes state law, “required” it use Social Security numbers in the administration of benefits and that it was “not administratively feasible for the EDD to only print the last four digits of a SSN on correspondence.”
The U.S. Department of Labor and the Social Security Administration both later confirmed that there is no law “requiring or prohibiting” government agencies from mailing documents with full SSNs.
Citing our reports, members of the FTC and consumer groups criticized the EDD’s practice of using the numbers as identifiers on mailed documents and state lawmakers from both sides of the aisle demanded the EDD make changes.
The coverage ultimately shamed the EDD into doing what it had long insisted was impossible. Three months after our first report, the agency began redacting social security numbers on the most commonly mailed documents.
However, now we’ve discovered the EDD is still printing the number on many other mailed documents, including those sent to claimants collecting disability.
The EDD is not alone in mailing sensitive information. ConsumerWatch reached out to every state in the nation and only 8 of the 42 states that responded say they redact Social Security numbers on all mailed documents. Like California, 17 admit they still mail the full number on documents to both claimants and employers.
Another 17 states say they only print the full SSN on documents mailed to employers. However, that is just as concerning for many who don’t trust that their former employers will take the same care that they would to properly dispose of the documents.
Like California, many of the other states mistakenly claim that federal law requires they print the full SSN.
Congresswoman Jackie Speier calls the current practice “negligence.” After seeing the CBS13 reports, the California Democrat said she reached across the aisle and asked Florida Republican Dennis Ross to re-introduce his “Safeguarding Social Security Numbers Act.”
“This bill was introduced before,” explained Speier. “When you drew attention to this issue, we called the author and asked him to reintroduce it.”
The bipartisan bill would, in part, finally prevent government agencies from displaying and mailing full Social Security numbers. However, it was introduced into the House Ways and Means Committee earlier this year and sources tell CBS13 the bill is “not moving right now due to other legislative agendas.”
The Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee did hold a hearing Wednesday to question the SSA Inspector General about his report on the overuse of Social Security numbers.
The committee also recently passed several pieces of legislation that address redacting SSNs on tax documents and Medicare cards.
However, it seems members have largely ignored the overarching issue of federal, state, local agencies and private companies that still believe they are allowed – and in some cases required – to regularly use SSNs as identifiers online and on mailed documents.
For now, Whitney says he hopes his new locking mailbox will provide some semblance of protection while he waits for California to keep its promise and remove the number from all mailed documents. “I definitely think Congress should prohibit this.”
The EDD says it has no estimate on when the California agency might begin redacting SSNs on disability documents, citing the need for funding and approvals.
When pressed on when the agency might receive the necessary funding and approvals, Deputy Director of Public Affairs Loree Levy explained: “because of the complexity I mentioned and the numerous steps involved beyond just EDD, at this point we do not have an ETA to provide on the completion of these efforts to replace or remove SSNs from various documents.”
The agency is encouraging California claimants to sign up for its new online system – which would limit the number of sensitive documents they receive in the mail.
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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.