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February 25, 2007

How to find out quickly if your Social Security number has been stolen


"TrustedID, a company that sells services to consumers to give them more control over who sees their credit reports, has compiled a database of compromised numbers that could already be traded or sold on the Internet," wrote Damon Darlin in a story that appeared on the front page of yesterday's New York Times Business section.

Just go to StolenIDSearch.com and find out — free — if your number is one of the over 2,367,155 compromised Social Security and credit card numbers listed.

Here's the Times article.

    Think Your Social Security Number Is Secure? Think Again

    It should come as little surprise that Social Security numbers are posted on the Internet. But, says Betty Ostergren, a former insurance claims supervisor in suburban Richmond, Va., who has spent years trolling for them, “people are always astounded” to learn that theirs is one of them.

    Mrs. Ostergren, 57, has made a name for herself as a gadfly as she took on a lonely and sometimes frustrating mission to draw attention to the situation. With addresses, dates of birth and maiden names often associated with Social Security numbers, she said, they are a gift to data thieves.

    But in the last few weeks, Mrs. Ostergren’s Web site, The Virginia Watchdog — with the help of lobbying from an unexpected ally, America’s farm bureaus — is having an effect.

    One by one, states and counties have started removing images of documents that contain Social Security numbers, or they are blocking out the numbers. Four states, including New York, have removed links to images of public documents containing Social Security numbers.

    Snohomish County, Wash., for example, said Wednesday that 61 types of documents, including tax liens and marriage certificates, would be blocked. (The documents are supposed to remain public at courthouses or state offices.)

    On Wednesday, the Texas attorney general, Greg Abbott, issued a legal opinion that county clerks could be committing a crime by revealing Social Security numbers on the Internet.

    “I am almost in a celebratory mode,” said David Bloys, a retired private investigator in Shallowater, Tex., who also highlights the public records issue on his Web site, NewsforPublicOfficials.com.

    For people wondering if they should be worried about the security of their own numbers, there is a new tool to help them.

    TrustedID, a company that sells services to consumers to give them more control over who sees their credit reports, has compiled a database of compromised numbers that could already be traded or sold on the Internet.

    It has created an online search tool, StolenIDSearch.com, where people can check at no cost to see if their number is one that is in a too-public domain.

    TrustedID said that about 220,000 people had tested their numbers in the three weeks the site has been open to the public.

    The Social Security number remains the personal identifier not only for government documents, but for credit applications and medical records, as well as video and cellphone stores.

    “In the commercial world, it is ubiquitous when credit is offered,” said Chris Jay Hoofnagle, a privacy advocate and senior fellow of the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology at the University of California, Berkeley. “It all flows from the credit system and it flows very far.”

    Even though Americans are told to protect their Social Security number to prevent identity theft, that is a tall order. The Social Security Administration says its card “was never intended and does not serve as a personal identification document.”

    But that has not been true about the number almost from outset. The Social Security numbers that were first handed out in November 1936 as a means for the federal government to track payments to the retirement system were soon used for other purposes. They help track payrolls, loan payments, financial transactions and income taxes.

    They are necessary for anyone seeking public assistance, like food stamps, or registering for the draft. Congress decreed that the numbers be put on records including professional licenses, marriages licenses and divorce decrees to better track scofflaws of child support orders.

    The Social Security number took on a second role. It allowed collectors of data to link pieces of information together, like a driver’s license record, credit report data and the information on the warranty card for a toaster. That is a useful tool for marketers and just as useful for criminals.

    It was only in 2004 that Congress prohibited states from using the Social Security number on drivers’ licenses. Yet the databases with those numbers still exist. Until 2001, states could sell lists with those numbers, which means that for virtually anyone 22 years or older, the name, address, phone number and Social Security number are in private databases.

    The nine-digit string took on a third role — as a password that was supposed to protect all that private information from snoops and criminals. But its ubiquity defeats that purpose, Mr. Hoofnagle said. “It will pass when the business community no longer needs a Social Security number,” he said.

    The Social Security Administration’s Office of Inspector General said that 16 percent of the 99,000 fraud cases it investigated in the 12-month period that ended Sept. 30 involved the misuse of Social Security numbers. One involved an identify theft ring in Central Florida. Twelve people were convicted, sentenced to prison and ordered to repay more than $2 million.

    About 16,000 incidents are not a lot considering that 240 million numbers are currently in use, and certainly theft and fraud involving credit card numbers are much more pervasive.

    But credit card numbers are rarely exposed on documents in public view. And if a credit card is stolen or misused, obtaining a new one is a fairly simple process. A new Social Security number is rarely granted. (Indeed, one is limited to 3 replacements of the green paper Social Security card in a year and 10 over a lifetime.)

    Social Security numbers are routinely traded and sold by thieves over the Internet like credit card numbers, says Panos Anastassiadis, chief executive of Cyveillance, a company in Arlington, Va., that monitors online fraud attempts for major financial institutions. His company has found caches of them in Web chat rooms where they are offered as samples by criminals selling even larger lists.

    They are sometimes obtained by “key logging” software surreptitiously installed on home computers to record what is typed. Some come from so-called phishing attacks in which people are misled into entering the data on fake Web sites of banks or utilities.

    The numbers are also out in the open. “People think it is the banks, but banks are very secure,” Mr. Anastassiadis said. “The problem is every dentist’s office has Social Security numbers. Every doctor’s office has them. How secure are these?”

    It has been Mrs. Ostergren’s near obsession to answer that question.

    Few things delight her more than finding a number belonging to a celebrity because it draws attention to her cause.

    “Oh, my Lord!” she exclaimed recently as she stumbled upon the Social Security number of a member of the boldfaced set as she demonstrated how New York State Web sites display documents containing names, addresses and Social Security numbers. “Let me download this one. This is Donald Trump’s number. I can’t wait to tell him.”

    Mrs. Ostergren never got through to Mr. Trump to confirm whether the nine-digit identifier was indeed his, but she has found and tried to notify others, including Kelly Ripa, the actress and talk-show host; Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida; Porter Goss, the former C.I.A. director; and scores of state legislators. She posted links to some of those documents on her site. (New York later made the documents unavailable, so the links no longer work.)

    She has found Social Security numbers on tax liens on the official site of Maricopa County in Arizona. In Florida, as in many states, they appear on documents consumers sign when they buy furniture or other merchandise on credit.

    Mrs. Ostergren wants the documents taken off the Web, and she applies pressure by using the people whose numbers she finds. “I’ve been calling people and telling them that they are exposed,” Mrs. Ostergren said. “It is not very hard to find the numbers. They are exposed everywhere.”

    Her Web site may be cluttered with so many typefaces that it resembles a ransom note, but she seems to be having an impact. In the last month she found a pressure point: farmers.

    Their numbers show up on Uniform Commercial Code filings when they buy machinery or supplies on credit. She showed state farm bureau leaders their numbers; they contacted their state legislators. She has also found common cause with other gadflies like Mr. Bloys.

    She has had her share of setbacks as well. Several state legislators tried to ban her from posting information about their personal data that appeared in public records. She wins no fans among legitimate companies who sell databases. Removing the data from the Internet slows their ability to collect public information, but does not stop them.

    “There are a lot of people in the data brokerage business who don’t like what I do,” she said.


Darlin wrote an accompanying story headlined "Dos and Don'ts on Disclosing Date"; it follows.

    The Dos and Don’ts on Disclosing Data

    Why is it difficult, if not impossible, to get electricity or buy a cellphone without disclosing your Social Security number?

    Because those kinds of companies use the number to check your credit report. They want to make sure you are a reliable person since they provide the service first and send the bill later. They are, in effect, extending you credit.

    You can refuse to provide your Social Security number, but they can refuse to provide the service.

    A spokesman for AT&T said that customers do not have to provide their Social Security numbers. One solution is to give a utility a deposit or, in the case of cellphones, buy the minutes in advance.

    The number is entrenched as the identifier for American’s health records, so it is basically a requirement in order to see the doctor or dentist. But you might be able to persuade your employer to stop using it as an employee ID number. Employers need it because the Internal Revenue Service demands it, but there is no reason for it to appear on time sheets or employee badges.

    You will probably never know that your number has been stolen until it is too late, but TrustedID’s free online search tool, StolenIDSearch.com, combs a limited database containing 2.3 million pieces of information, including stolen Social Security numbers and credit card numbers found on the Internet.

    The number of people who had compromised data surprised the company: 0.81 percent. It expected a much lower rate, but said an explanation might be that the people who checked are those who already know their data are in the hands of crooks.

    Now for the scary part: what do you do if it is compromised? First, obtain a copy of your credit report from each of the three largest credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion.

    AnnualCreditReport.com provides free copies once a year. (You should be doing this every year even if your Social Security number is not stolen. Another thing everyone should do is install anti-virus and anti-spyware software on their computers and keep it updated.)

    It happens rarely, but if there are entries on the credit report that cannot be explained, then you have real problems. Contact the credit bureaus, credit card companies and the merchants involved. Alert the Federal Trade Commission and local law enforcement as well.

    This would be one of those occasions when it makes sense to freeze your credit so no new accounts can be opened.

February 25, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

The Interpreter


I watched this on DVD last night and was engrossed from the get-go.

How is it that this film got such mixed reviews — mostly bad?

Just excellent, and highly recommended by moi.

Even when Sean Penn's not that good he's better than 99% of all actors currently working.

February 25, 2007 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

parisdjs.com — 'Our music is a secret order' [Louis Armstrong]


Not any more — you've been outed.

February 25, 2007 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

A billion here, a billion there — ah, what the heck, it's all funny money anyway


That's how I interpreted some of the headlines in yesterday's newspapers of record.

The New York Times front page headline above its story about a big new leveraged buyout read, "$45 Billion Bid for a Texas Utility in Biggest Buyout Ever" (above).


But then when I turned to the Wall Street Journal, its front page headline read,


Maybe $13 billion is chump change to you but to me, that's some serious cash.

What gives?

February 25, 2007 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

If Magritte had Photoshop


February 25, 2007 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The road not taken


It's always interesting to speculate about what might have been.

In that vein, I've always liked George Sand's remark, to wit: "It's never too late to become what you might have become."

February 25, 2007 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

'How To Talk About Blogs You've Never Heard Of'


It would appear to be a natural sequel to Pierre Bayard's hot new book (above), currently a best-seller in France with translation rights into English under negotiation.

The English title is "How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read?"

Alan Riding interviewed the author for yesterday's New York Times story, which follows.

    Read It? No, but You Can Skim a Few Pages and Fake It

    It may well be that too many books are published, but by good fortune, not all must be read. In practice, primed by publishers, critics, teachers, authors and word-of-mouth, a form of natural selection limits essential reading to those classics and best sellers that become part of civilized intellectual and social discourse.

    Of course, many people don’t get through these books, either, and too embarrassed to admit it, they worry constantly about being exposed as philistines.

    Now Pierre Bayard, a Paris University literature professor, has come to their rescue with a survivor’s guide to life in the chattering classes. And it is evidently much in need. “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read?” has become a best seller here, with translation rights snapped up across Europe and under negotiation in Britain and the United States.

    “I am surprised because I hadn’t imagined how guilty nonreaders feel,” Mr. Bayard, 52, said in an interview. “With this book, they can shake off their guilt without psychoanalysis, so it’s much cheaper.”

    Mr. Bayard reassures them that there is no obligation to read, and confesses to lecturing students on books that he has either not read or has merely skimmed. And he recalls passionate exchanges with people who also have not read the book under discussion.

    He further cites writers like Montaigne, who could not remember what he read, and Paul Valéry, who found ways of praising authors whose books he had never opened. Mr. Bayard finds characters in novels by Graham Greene, David Lodge and others who cheerfully question the need to read at all. And he refuses to be intimidated by Proust or Joyce.

    Having demonstrated that non-readers are in good company, Mr. Bayard then offers tips on how to cover up ignorance of a “must-read” book.

    Meeting a book’s author can be particularly tricky. Here, Mr. Bayard said there was no need to display knowledge of the book, since the author already has his own ideas about it. Rather, he said, the answer is “to speak well of it without entering into details.” Indeed, all the author needs to hear is that “one has loved what he has written.”

    Domestic life is another potentially hazardous zone. People often want their spouses and partners to share their love of a particular book. And when this happens, Mr. Bayard said, they can both inhabit a “secret universe.” But if only one has read the book, silent empathy may offer the best way out.

    Students, he noted from experience, are skilled at opining about books they have not read, building on elements he may have provided in a lecture. This approach can also work in the more exposed arena of social gatherings: the book’s cover, reviews and other public reaction to it, gossip about the author and even the current conversation can all provide food for sounding informed.

    One alternative, he said, is to try to change the subject. Another is to admit not knowing a particular book while suggesting knowledge of the so-called “collective library” into which the book fits.

    But Mr. Bayard’s most daring suggestion is that nonreaders should talk about themselves, using the pretext of the book without dwelling on its contents. In this way, he said, they are forced to tap their imagination and, in effect, invent their own book.

    “To be able to talk with finesse about something one does not know is worth more than the universe of books,” he writes.

    That Mr. Bayard enjoys the role of iconoclast is evident in the titles of some of his earlier books, including “How to Improve Failed Literary Works,” in which he examines “failed” books by Proust, Marguerite Duras and others, and “Inquiry Into Hamlet,” in which he sets out to prove that Claudius did not murder his brother and Hamlet’s father, the King of Denmark.

    With his new book, he is also a tad subversive because “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read?” is not really what it appears to be. “It is told by a fictional personality who boasts about not reading and is obviously not me,” he explained. “This is not a book written by a nonreader.”

    But he chose this device, he said, because he wanted to help people conquer their fear of culture by challenging the way that literature is presented to students and the public in France.

    “We are taught one way of reading,” he said. “Students are told to read the book, then to fill out a form detailing everything they have read. It’s a linear approach that serves to enshrine books. People now come up to me to describe the cultural wounds they suffered at school. ‘You have to read all of Proust.’ They were traumatized.”

    “They see culture as a huge wall, as a terrifying specter of ‘knowledge,’ ” he went on. “But we intellectuals, who are avid readers, know there are many ways of reading a book. You can skim it, you can start and not finish it, you can look at the index. You learn to live with a book.”

    So, yes, he conceded, his true aim is to make people read more — but with more freedom. “I want people to learn to live with books,” he said. “I want to help people organize their own paths through culture. Also those outside the written word, those who are so attached to the image that it’s difficult to bring them back.”

    Then why, he was asked, did he write a book that seems to justify nonreading?

    “I like to write funny books,” he said. “I try to use humor to deal with complex subjects.”


One of Truman Capote's epigrams is apropos, to wit: "It's enough to buy a book — once you own it, you don't have to read it."

February 25, 2007 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Is the New York Times guilty of pandering?


Look at the photo above.

What do you see?

I see the cover of today's Times Women's Fashion Spring 2007 magazine, with Robin Wright Penn appearing to be pulling off her blouse alongside the words "adult content."

I guess it's okay — but just this once....

February 25, 2007 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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