IRS Basically Plastering Your Social Security Numbers on Billboards Now, Because Why Not?

Tax agency overuse of sensitive personal info makes more opportunities for identity thieves.


credit: 401(K) 2013 / Foter / CC BY-SA

The IRS continues to recklessly print Social Security Numbers (SSNs) on hundreds of millions of notices and letters, despite warnings that this practice dangerously exposes sensitive personal information, and years of pressure to reduce the use of SSNs on documentation.

In fact, the tax agency doesn't even have procedures in place to fully track its use of SSNs, according to a report by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), a tax agency watchdog.

In a press release today, the watchdog warned that even though "a person's Social Security Number is the most valuable piece of personal data identity thieves can obtain….The fact that the IRS does not have processes and procedures to accurately identify all correspondence that contain Social Security Numbers remains a concern." In short, the IRS is so casual about the use of SSNs on documents that it doesn't even really know all the ways that it uses them. What's clear, though, is that they're used an awful lot.

That creates a potentially huge identity theft problem for hundreds of millions of Americans. As the full TIGTA report notes, the Federal Trade Commission has warned that mail theft is common amongst identity thieves.

And the IRS sends a huge amount of mail with SSNs included. In the 2014 fiscal year, the tax agency mailed in excess of 141 million notices and 37 million letters, TIGA reports, most of which still contain personal info.

The IRS was supposed to cut down on the use of SSNs years ago. The Office of Management and Budget ordered the agency to get rid of unnecessary by 2009, but the agency didn't comply, and in 2011 suspended its ongoing SSN Elimination Reduction Program entirely, complaining of limited funding. (How much money does it really take to remove or redact SSNs from widespread use?)

Anyway, the IRS hasn't made much effort to fulfill its mandate. A previous TIGTA review found no "significant progress" in reducing the use of unnecessary SSNs, and the latest from the watchdog finds only "limited progress" as of January 2015, with the IRS removing SSNs from 2 percent of the 2,749 types of letters it sends out, and 48 percent of the 195 types of notices it issues.

In other words, the IRS is, as usual, making life more difficult for ordinary taxpayers. On the other hand, it is continuing to ensure plenty of opportunity for identity thieves.