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Social Security Warns of Hoax - Elderly Beware

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