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Social Security Warns of Hoax
Flier Offering Slave Reparations Solicits Personal Information
By Caroline E. Mayor
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
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