Group Found Social Security Numbers of Attorney General, CIA Director for $26

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Mr. Court discusses how people intent on identity theft obtain Social Security numbers. He says for $26 his group found the Social Security numbers of Attorney General John Ashcroft and CIA Director George Tenet.
BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: If you think that only you and the government can obtain personal information like your Social Security number, think again. Not only is it easy for someone to find out your vital information, it’s pretty cheap, too. For $26, a California watchdog group says as a kind of test they obtained the Social Security numbers of Attorney General John Ashcroft and CIA Director George Tenet online.

Jamie Court, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights and author of a book called “Corporateering” is live with us in L.A. to talk about it.

Good morning, Jamie. How are you?

Twenty-six bucks online, was it that easy?

JAMIE COURT, FOUNDATION FOR TAXPAYER & CONSUMER RIGHTS: It was too easy, you know, and I — we did it to show that everybody’s information is at risk and everything is for sale, including our privacy. We did it not — you could do it on about a dozen Web sites, so it’s not one particular Web site. It’s more just the system that allows our information to be for sale and corporations, banks, insurers, credit card companies buy and sell our information like it’s stocks and bonds. So inevitably it gets in the hands of these warehousers, who will sell it to the public.

HEMMER: Take that a step further at the end there. Who provides this information, Jamie?

COURT: Well, it’s not all that clear. But from what we’ve seen, it’s that the companies we do business with, be they our bank or our credit card company or our brokerages pretty freely trade in information among their thousands of affiliates and among third parties. We think a lot of this information winds up on these web sites from credit bureaus that get their information for the companies that do business with us. And unfortunately it’s very hard to stop the sale of information.

You can contact corporations in your lives to affirmatively say I don’t want my information sold, but that will not stop them under federal law right now from sharing that information with their thousands of affiliate companies, who then often trade with other companies. And it’s just part of a system of shared information that results in those four billion credit card solicitations you get every year.

HEMMER: You know, Jamie, that’s the point we want to get to here, how you can protect yourself as a consumer. You’re telling me right now that there is no sure fire way to do it.

COURT: Well, not without better laws. California just enacted a law last week that Governor Davis signed that says companies do have to ask your permission before they sell your information to a third party. And there’s also some limited abilities to say no to families of corporate affiliates. And Citigroup, for instance, has a thousand corporate affiliates. Under federal law, you can say no to the selling of the information among the affiliates or the sharing of information. Under California law, you do have a limited right.

HEMMER: So you’re saying short of better federal laws, there’s no recourse?

COURT: Well, there is the ability to what’s called opt out right now. And that is to contact the companies in your lives and to say I don’t want you sharing information with third parties, like another Web site.

HEMMER: Do they have to believe you? Do they have to follow your request?

COURT: They have to follow it only as far as it goes to third parties, companies not affiliated with that bank or insurance company or credit card company. But they do not have to follow it in their corporate family of affiliates. But unfortunately that is often thousands of companies and so it’s very hard to contact each of those companies and say don’t share it with a third party, which is why we’re really pushing for stronger federal laws. In fact, we were in Washington last week making sure that the California state law, which does allow consumers to say no in most instances, is respected. And we’re afraid that instead of federal legislation creating more privacy rights, there’s actually a bill now, H.R. 2622, that wouldn’t allow states like California to have stronger laws than the federal law, which isn’t strong enough.

HEMMER: Jamie Court, thanks for sharing with us and bringing it again to our attention.

We talked about a lot of it the past couple of years, and, again, a good reminder today. Do the homework and make the phone calls.

Jamie Court in L.A., thanks.

COURT: Thank you.

Consumer Watchdog
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