Activists spur action against ID theft: Social Security numbers were for sale online

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The Boston Herald

State lawmakers and Mayor Thomas M. Menino yesterday called for tougher laws to protect consumer privacy after activist groups revealed Wednesday that they had bought the Social Security numbers of Menino and Gov. Mitt Romney off the Internet for $30 each.

“Obviously I’m alarmed we have these kinds of things happening in our society,” said Sen. John Hart (D-South Boston), Senate chairman of the commerce and labor committee. “We have a number of bills before our committee relating to consumer privacy and identity theft that we haven’t taken any action on. I would advocate to members that we not act in haste, but move quickly on this matter.”

Menino spoke to city lawyers yesterday, asking them to look into what can be done to ensure the security of personal information, including Social Security numbers. A spokesman for Menino said the mayor quipped yesterday that he’d have expected his Social Security number would be worth more than $30.

“Mayor Menino is concerned because it can affect people in the context of credit, in trying to get new jobs and a myriad of other ways,” said spokesman Seth Gitell.

Several consumer groups yesterday released a scorecard rating how major cities fare on privacy protections and other controls against corporate intrusions into residents’ lives. Boston rated a C, ahead of Los Angeles and Philadelphia but behind Seattle, Portland, Ore., and San Francisco.

The groups pointed out that Massachusetts does not require corporations to obtain an individual’s permission before selling his or her private information.

Gitell said Menino expressed support, in concept, for a California consumer privacy law.

Jamie Court, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, which led the scorecard initiative, said California has passed a law that requires banks, insurance and securities companies to get written consent from consumers before sharing information with third parties. However, those firms can sell or share to affiliated companies, until consumers opt out or deny them permission to do so.

San Francisco passed a law, however, that says companies can never sell a resident’s private information without permission, regardless of whether it is to a third party or corporate affiliate, Court said. The law is being challenged by banks. San Francisco topped all other jurisdictions rated, with an A-minus.

The consumer groups gave Massachusetts credit for taking some steps to protect consumer privacy, including passing a law in 1995 giving consumers the right to a free credit report annually from national credit bureaus. It prohibits banks from using Social Security numbers as identifiers for customer accounts.

And pending legislation would provide greater protections.

“We may incorporate a whole number of bills,” Hart said. “We want to strike a balance between true consumer protection and the legitimate rights of businesses.”

Consumer Watchdog
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