This is a cautionary tale, one that will make you mad, although maybe not nearly as angry and frustrated as the family that’s had to live through it.
It’s a story about a Los Osos family having to deal with their teenaged son’s identity being stolen by a man in Redwood Valley, a grape-based town of less than 2,000 located about eight miles north of Ukiah in Mendocino County. (Dubiously, the town was the home of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple cult for a short time.)
The family has asked that their real names not be used.
“Fearful that our bright, shy and honorable son Garrett will one day be escorted away in police handcuffs,” said Margie, “I have spent countless hours over the last few months trying to contain the damage done by an identity thief.”
Their ordeal began March 10, when Margie noticed that all of the money — $200 — in one of her 16-year-old son’s college savings accounts had disappeared. Another account in his name totaling $12,000 was still intact.
As it turned out, a levy from the State Franchise Tax Board had been sent to Garrett’s bank, asking for $1,750 for taxes owed for 2006 and 2007. Someone named Juan Garcia in Redwood Valley had been using her son’s Social Security number, and Garcia owed that amount in taxes.
So the bank had taken $100 from the son’s account for processing, and the tax board took the other $100 as partial payment of Juan Garcia’s tax obligation.
Margie protested that her son had neither worked in 2006 and 2007 and was not Juan Garcia. She called the tax board for answers. She was told the tax board had no way of knowing that her son — whose name and Social Security number had been listed on the family’s state and federal income tax returns for the past 16 years — even existed.
She was told to send copies of the police report, as well as their son’s birth certificate and Social Security card, to the tax board. Only then could they begin the process of returning the levy.
Now, here’s the crux of the problem: Social Security numbers —which every child is required to have — aren’t monitored by either the state or the feds until those youngsters start working and filing their own tax returns. Adding to the family’s frustration, the tax board rep said they were unable to pull up the family’s return — where all of the family members’ names and Social Security numbers were listed. Why? Bureaucratic protocol.
Further, a Social Security Administration representative told Margie that when their agency receives tax information from the IRS, they match data about work based on name, birth date and Social Security number.
That said, no one at either the SSA or IRS could tell Margie what follow-up is taken if that information doesn’t match.
“As far as they were concerned,” said Margie, “our son’s Social Security number belonged to Juan Garcia.”
As most of us have been made aware in one way or another — whether through news of Cal Poly records being hacked for personal information or computer systems of mega-companies like Motorola and Sun Microsystems being broken into — high-tech theft is now a pernicious worm among us.
And although it’s now commonly accepted that we don’t give out our Social Security numbers as freely as we once did because of identity theft, that’s not much of a defensive posture when you consider the system was set up 75 years ago.
In her quest to clear her son and retrieve his identity, this is what Margie learned about Social Security cards: In general, the first three numbers refer to the state of residence; the second two numbers represent what’s called “batching” (a receiving, extracting and sorting function at SSA); and the final four are the “serial number,” which is supposedly unique.
“Historically, these have been issued sequentially, so it is not unusual for identical twins to have separate numbers distanced by one digit,” Margie explains. “In our son’s case, the Social Security representative said that the imposter could have just made up the number.”
Next week: On the trail of Juan Garcia and tips on how to protect your identity in a cyber-snooping world.