Julie Watts reporting


SACRAMENTO (CBS13) – Following four years and dozens of CBS13 reports, a permanent fix is finally in the works to prevent state agencies from mailing your social security number. This follows a state audit of the Employment Development Department (EDD) that found the agency has been putting millions of Californians at risk of identity theft.

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The audit, that was prompted by a CBS 13 investigation and found the EDD mailed 17 million documents with full Social Security numbers (SSNs) printed on them in 2018. State law prohibits mailing SSNs unless required under a different state or federal law. The audit found no law that requires the EDD to mail SSNs, despite the agency’s repeated claims to the contrary.

The audit also found the agency will compromise at least another 13 million people this year, including some of the state’s most vulnerable – people collecting unemployment, disability, and maternity leave benefits.

The EDD has long defended its practice of mailing SSNs by claiming there is no evidence that anyone has ever been harmed. However, we’ve heard from dozens of viewers over the years who complained of everything from misdirected mail to mail theft involving EDD documents.

“Someone knew that my document might give them a social security number to sell,” Mary Shaw told CBS13 after one of her EDD documents went missing from the mail.

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The seasonal tax preparer often has to advise her clients of the risk of mailing sensitive documents. That’s why she was so frustrated to find that, despite her best efforts, the EDD compromised her security by mailing her full SSN along with other sensitive information.

Mary uses a mail tracking service that emails her images of every document that leaves the post office. That’s how she discovered one of her EDD documents never arrived. The incident forced her down the time-consuming and costly road of credit monitoring and fraud alerts.

“That’s a lot of work and it’s ongoing,” Mary complained.

Mary is not alone. Viewer Whitney also contacted CBS13 after a mail-theft incident, and Nichole sent us photos of an EDD envelope where her SSN was on full display through the envelope’s window. Last but not least, the Howards were among many to report that the EDD mailed them other people’s sensitive EDD documents.

“I was like, ‘How in the world did this piece of paper get into an envelope addressed to me?’” Jody Howard said.

The audit documented several similar, known security incidents involving mass printing or mailing errors by the EDD. According to Postal Inspection records, there are hundreds of recent complaints specifically citing compromised EDD documents. However, the auditor pointed out that there are likely many more victims because most people who are compromised will never know that it was due to an EDD document.

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Lawmakers first demanded the agency stop printing the numbers after seeing our reports back in 2015. In response, the EDD vowed to remove all SSNs from mailings by the end of the year. The agency also claimed in a follow-up email to CBS13 that there were new “online options that did not require the mailing of documents.” However, in 2018, CBS13 discovered the EDD was not only still mailing SSNs, but they were mailing them to EDD customers who enrolled in online services and asked not to receive paper mail.

We brought our findings back to lawmakers in 2018 and Assemblywoman Catherine Baker (ret.) and requested an audit of the EDD, citing our findings and the EDD’s unwillingness to abide by state law.

EDD Director Patrick Henning fought hard to keep the auditor out of his office, defending his agency’s ability to handle the issue themselves.

“We are the best at keeping people’s information private,” Henning told lawmakers.

The EDD has a history of audits under Director Henning, who set up private meetings with committee members to try to avoid yet another audit. When questioned about the meetings, Henning told CBS13 he simply felt the state had “other priorities.”

Lawmakers on the Joint Legislative Audit Committee disagreed with Henning’s assertion and voted unanimously to embed the state auditor inside the EDD for five months. The audit confirmed that the EDD had no plans to stop printing SSNs for at least another five years.

It also found that although at least half of the people who sign up for EDD benefits online request not to receive paper documents in the mail, the EDD continues to send them paper documents with their full SSN.

“The state has an obligation to protect the personal information we receive,” said Margarita Fernandez, a spokesperson for the auditor.

The audit outlined a plan for the EDD to stop printing social security numbers on the most frequently mailed documents within the year and remove them entirely from all documents by 2021. It also called on lawmakers to amend state law and prevent any agency from mailing these numbers in the future.

While it is already illegal to mail an SSN in the state of California, unless or until someone sues the EDD, the agency argues it is above the law. The auditor is asking for an amendment to state law that would clarify that no agency is above the law.

CBS13 has confirmed that Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham is working on that legislation; however, it won’t likely be introduced until next year.

Comments
  1. Charlie Lawrence says:

    I’d really like to know which corporate entity paid which employee(s) to do that>

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