Social Security Numbers No Longer Visible

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Seeking to better protect privacy, the Treasury Department is no longer making Social Security numbers visible through envelope windows of benefits checks mailed to more than 14 million people. The change began this month.


While Social Security numbers are important sources of information for direct marketers, they also have become powerful tools for criminals. The numbers can give easy access to personal records, including financial and medical data, or can help criminals assume another person's identity to obtain credit or government benefits.


The Treasury Department's Financial Management Service, which issues the checks, will use check numbers rather than Social Security numbers to identify and retrieve payments that are ineligible for delivery. In 1999, more than 1 million ineligible Social Security checks worth $620 million were removed from mailings, the department said.


In 1998, Social Security numbers were removed from view in the envelope windows used to mail Internal Revenue Service tax refund checks. Following Y2K preparations, FMS took steps to conceal the numbers from remaining checks. The final phase of the project, affecting less than 10 percent of Treasury check payments, will be completed in spring 2001.


In related news, an amendment that addresses the sale of Social Security numbers for marketing purposes is moving along in Congress.


The amendment, introduced by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-NH, prohibits the display of Social Security numbers on the Internet to the general public for commercial purposes without consent. The amendment was added this summer to an appropriations bill before a subcommittee that Gregg chairs. The appropriations bill, S. 4690, will be on the Senate floor next week. If it is passed in the Senate, it will move to a conference committee with the House of Representatives. If passed, the bill could end up on President Clinton's desk by Oct. 6, the target adjournment date for Congress.
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