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Social Security Warns of Hoax
Flier Offering Slave Reparations Solicits Personal Information
By Caroline E. Mayer Washington Post Staff Writer Monday, July 9, 2001; Page A02
The Social Security Administration today is to issue a special alert to senior citizens to beware of hoax solicitations promising additional federal benefits and/or $5,000 in slave reparations in exchange for sensitive private information.
The alert comes from the agency's Office of the Inspector General, which recently completed an investigation that found that more than 29,000 people around the country were duped by anonymous fliers posted in churches, nursing homes and senior centers. One flier, seeking birth dates and Social Security numbers, said that "due to the Slave Reparation Act," the government was refunding money to anyone alive who was born before 1928. There is no such law.
"The flier is a hoax," James G. Huse Jr., the Social Security administration's inspector general, said in a memo sent Friday to the acting commissioner of Social Security.
The alert comes amid increasing concerns that Social Security numbers are being misused to create new, false identities and/or open unauthorized credit card accounts-a phenomenon known as identity theft.
Huse testified before Congress in May, saying that the misuse of Social Security numbers in fraudulent activity is "a national crisis."In testimony, he said: "The power [the Social Security number] wields -- power to engage in financial transactions, power to obtain personal information, power to create or commandeer identities -- makes it a valuable asset and one that is subject to limitless abuse."
In his memo last week, Huse did not say if the hoax solicitations his office studied were used to create false identities, although another government agency, the Federal Trade Commission, has previously stated that scores of citizens had been victims of identity theft after they responded to similar fliers suggesting they may be eligible for slave reparations.
Huse said, however, that his office found the solicitations were used to seek funds for a tax-exempt lobbying group of a veteran services organization, the TREA Senior Citizens League (TSCL), based in Alexandria.
All along, the group has denied any involvement with the fliers, saying the fliers were developed and disseminated by a well-intentioned supporter.
Despite an investigation, Huse said his office could not identify the origin of the hoax fliers. However, he added, the league, an independent affiliate of the Retired Enlisted Association, was the only organization that received the responses generated by the fliers investigated by his office.
Those fliers directed citizens to send their names, birth dates and Social Security numbers to a National Victims Registrar at the league's post office box in Washington.
According to Huse's memo, the league directed its data-processing firm to enter personal information of those who responded into its database and send letters to those who responded. The letters denied responsibility for the fliers, but included a brochure soliciting a contribution to support its lobbying efforts, particularly its campaign to get more Social Security benefits for citizens born from 1917 to 1927.
For the past 10 years, the league has argued that a 1977 recalculation in benefits reduced payments by an average 20 percent to the "notch" of citizens born those years. Many of the hoax fliers were similar to the fundraising brochures the league distributed in its normal course of business, Huse said.
The league's deputy legislative director, Michael Plumer, said yesterday that the organization was pleased that the federal government found "we didn't originate the fliers. They were not similar to ours because we have never ever asked for Social Security numbers." Plumer said all of the information of those who had responded to the fliers were kept in a separate database, which was to be destroyed.
Huse, Social Security's inspector general, found that 29,000 elderly Americans had responded to the TSCL fliers, sending in Social Security cards, birth records, drivers licenses and military records, including discharge papers. In one case, an original birth certificate was forwarded to TSCL's registrar.
In other cases, citizens sent letters saying they desperately needed the money. One such letter came from a woman in Arkansas who was writing on behalf of herself and her husband who was blind and had a left leg amputated. "We need assistance bad," she said.
"By falsely promising additional Social Security payments, the anonymous mailings tricked seniors into parting with coveted personal information," Huse said. "Therefore, we are warning seniors to think twice before responding to any solicitations promising additional Social Security payments."
A Social Security spokesman said responses came from all across the country, although she did not know if there were any from the Washington area. She added that there were many responses from residents who lived around Chicago and Little Rock.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), July 09, 2001