WRAL Investigates

Is your Social Security number online?

Posted February 18, 2010 6:00 p.m. EST
Updated February 18, 2010 7:02 p.m. EST

WRAL Investigates

— Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in the country. Approximately 10 million Americans have their identity stolen every year. For identity thieves, Social Security numbers are like gold.

On one side of the issue, the Federal Trade Commission offers tips to prevent and react to identity theft. Chief among the tips: Keep your personal identifying information secure.

Yet another federal Web site makes the Social Security numbers of North Carolinians who file for bankruptcy readily available.

Nan Flake is one of the people whose number was available for all to see. She filed for bankruptcy 10 years ago after Hurricane Floyd destroyed her business near the Pitt-Greenville Airport.

Flake didn’t have flood insurance and was forced to sell her home, a cottage and all of her stock to help erase the $500,000 hole left by Floyd. She didn’t qualify for help since she filed for bankruptcy.

After receiving the news that her Social Security number was posted online, Flake said it felt like reliving a nightmare.

“I’ve been punished enough. I don’t want to be punished anymore, and you just brought it to my attention that they are still punishing me in a way,” she said. “It’s scary that the federal government allows this to stay on record.”

Paul Stephens with the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a watchdog group, says the federal government "is the biggest offender" when it comes to not protecting Social Security numbers.

In December 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court approved rules changes that full Social Security numbers could no longer be listed on bankruptcy filings. That change was five years in the making, a result of then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's war on identity theft.

Ashcroft mentioned one arrest where a suspect was selling Social Security numbers on eBay. At the same time, those numbers were free on the federal court system's Web site, and they still are.

For people like Flake, that's not good enough.

“They should take them off, do away with them. They're smart enough to have a program to wipe it right out,” she said.

Everyone WRAL spoke with, from bankruptcy attorneys to the U.S. Administrative Office of the Courts, admits that it is a concern. However, current judicial rules do not allow changes to filed documents.

Any changes to the rule would take millions of dollars, a lot of manpower and years to implement, which is little consolation to people like Flake.