San Diego We all assume that if there is one thing that's ours alone, it is our Social Security number. And everyone who's ever offered you a job, a loan, or a line of credit has assumed that if they have your Social Security number, they have a number that identifies you and nobody else. Carol Huckabay, a human resources director who lives in Carlsbad, assumed the same thing, until 1990.
"I was living in San Jose, working for a market-research firm when I got laid off," says Huckabay, a trim, soft-spoken woman in her late 40s, dressed in a gray tweed pants suit. She sits with perfect posture at an uncluttered desk in her spare, almost austere office at a Carlsbad semi-conductor company. "For the first time, I decided to apply for unemployment benefits. So I went to the unemployment office, and I gave them my Social Security number, which I've had since I was a kid. And the clerk there said, 'Are you sure this is your number? Someone's already using it to get benefits.' She showed me a computer screen, and it had all the companies that Mr. Martinez, the man using my number, and I had worked for. They were meshed into one list. It was amazing. I got concerned because I thought, if someone else is getting unemployment on my number, what about me? So I went to the Social Security office in Santa Clara and explained the situation. They were very curt and said, 'There's nothing we can do about it.' They also told me it wouldn't affect my benefits. I find that hard to believe. What if Mr. Martinez starts claiming my benefits?"
Tom Margenau, public information officer at the Social Security Administration's office on Front Street, downtown, responds, "That would never happen. To collect Social Security benefits, you have to show up and give us a birth certificate. Now, conceivably, worst-case scenario, I suppose they could find some woman roughly the same age and forge a birth certificate, but that would get awfully complicated. I've been with Social Security 28 years, and I've never heard of a situation like that. There's been many an identity-theft issue but never a case of stealing someone's Social Security benefits. And, in a strange kind of twist to this identity-theft issue, if these guys are using Carol Huckabay's number and posting earnings to her number, it actually kind of helps her, because it boosts her eventual Social Security benefit. Because your benefit is based entirely on your earnings. And the more earnings on your number, the higher your benefit is going to be."
Roy Nedrow heads the local office of the Social Security Administration's Inspector General, a federal law-enforcement agency that investigates crime related to Social Security numbers and benefits. He says cases in which one person's benefits are claimed by another are uncommon but do happen. "We've worked those cases, and we've worked them in the San Diego office, and we've worked them within the last year. For us, that's just about the highest priority case we could work -- somebody who is hijacking somebody else's identity to receive Social Security benefits. We handled a case that had a little bit of everything. The guy is a convicted child molester. He's wanted and he's on the run, so he's a fugitive to start with. His brother, who is a Social Security recipient, dies. So this guy gets his brother's identification and his brother's number and goes in and changes his identity to that of his brother because it saves him from being a fugitive. At the same time, he says, 'What the hell, I'm already here. I might as well collect my brother's benefits.' So he's getting a double benefit over this. This guy is in prison now. That's a recent case we handled last year out of the San Diego office of the Social Security Administration."
Margenau points out that one's Social Security benefits are only a small part of the identity-theft equation. "We can take care of [Huckabay's] Social Security records," he explains. "In other words, if there's been a problem with people using her number, we can make sure her earnings record is correctly posted. But, frankly, even though it's a Social Security number that's causing all these problems, her Social Security issues are kind of a minor problem. It's credit issues and things that are a much more major problem. And, of course, there we're out of the picture because you have to deal with credit bureaus and other kinds of agencies to deal with that. If the issues become so severe that the credit histories are all messed up and credit is ruined, then the one option she has through us is we can issue her a new Social Security number, and she can start all over with a new number. But that's kind of a last-resort option."
After discovering that her number was being used by someone else and the initial concern it caused, Huckabay carried on with life and forgot about the issue, until last year. "I did some work in the spring for a company in Mission Valley. They ran a background check on me. What they did, it's through Transunion, they pay a fee and you get a background check on these people. The background check showed three people using my number. There's Juan A. Zelayandia, Bonifacio A. Estrella, and Juan A. Cruz. Full names, addresses, and the whole nine yards. I went to the Social Security Administration here in Pacific Beach and explained the situation. I said, 'There have been four other men using my Social Security number,' and the fellow there said, 'You know what, there's nothing you can do because they're only using it to get work.' I said, 'Well, they're using it illegally to get work. They're probably illegal aliens.' He said, 'That goes without saying.' "
At this point, with four people using her Social Security number, Huckabay began to worry about them gaining access to her credit. "So I sent letters to the three credit report agencies [Transunion, Equifax, and Experian] explaining the situation and asking them to be alert if anybody applied for a credit card or anything using that Social Security number. They have a process through which you can do that."