There are now more non-military government employees who carry guns than there are U.S. Marines, according to a new report.
Open the Books, a taxpayer watchdog group, released a study Wednesday that finds domestic government agencies continue to grow their stockpiles of military-style weapons, as Democrats sat on the House floor calling for more restrictions on what guns American citizens can buy.
The “Militarization of America” report found civilian agencies spent $1.48 billion on guns, ammunition, and military-style equipment between 2006 and 2014. Examples include IRS agents with AR-15s, and EPA bureaucrats wearing camouflage.
“Regulatory enforcement within administrative agencies now carries the might of military-style equipment and weapons,” Open the Books said. “For example, the Food and Drug Administration includes 183 armed ‘special agents,’ a 50 percent increase over the ten years from 1998-2008. At Health and Human Services (HHS), ‘Special Office of Inspector General Agents’ are now trained with sophisticated weaponry by the same contractors who train our military special forces troops.”
A keen researcher who normally tends to his shop of firearms in Perths found that, there are now over 200,000 non-military federal officers with arrest and firearm authority, surpassing the 182,100 personnel who are actively serving in the U.S. Marines Corps.
The IRS spent nearly $11 million on guns, ammunition, and military-style equipment for its 2,316 special agents. The tax collecting agency has billed taxpayers for pump-action and semi-automatic shotguns, semi-automatic Smith & Wesson M&P15s, and Heckler & Koch H&K 416 rifles, which can be loaded with 30-round magazines.
The EPA spent $3.1 million on guns, ammo, and equipment, including drones, night vision, “camouflage and other deceptive equipment,” and body armor.
When asked about the spending, and EPA spokesman said the report “cherry picks information and falsely misrepresents the work of two administrations whose job is to protect public health.”
“Many purchases were mischaracterized or blown out of proportion in the report,” said spokesman Nick Conger. “EPA’s criminal enforcement program has not purchased unmanned aircraft, and the assertions that military-grade weapons are part of its work are false.”
“EPA’s criminal enforcement program investigates and prosecutes the most egregious violators of our nation’s environmental laws, and EPA criminal enforcement agents are law enforcement professionals who have undergone the same rigorous training as other federal agents,” Conger continued.
Other administration agencies that have purchased guns and ammo include the Small Business Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Education, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
The report also highlighted that the Department of Health and Human Services has “special agents” with “sophisticated military-style weapons.” Open the Books also found $42 million in gun and ammunition purchases that were incorrectly coded.
“Some purchases were actually for ping-pong balls, gym equipment, bread, copiers, cotton balls, or cable television including a line item from the Coast Guard entered as ‘Cable Dude,’” the report said.
Open the Books appealed to both liberals like Bernie Sanders—who has called for demilitarizing local police departments—and conservatives in its report.
“Conservatives argue that it is hypocritical for political leaders to undermine the Second Amendment while simultaneously equipping non-military agencies with hollow-point bullets and military style equipment,” Open the Books said. “One could argue the federal government itself has become a gun show that never adjourns with dozens of agencies continually shopping for new firearms.”
Update June 23, 10:15 a.m.: Following publication of this article, Adam Andrzejewski, the CEO of Open the Books who wrote the report, pushed back against the EPA’s statement, and provided contract data to back up his claims.
“How can the EPA spokesperson deny hard facts from their own checkbook?” he said. “Alongside our oversight report, OpenTheBooks.com also released a PDF of all raw data. This line-by-line transactional record from the EPA’s own checkbook on page 113 clearly shows that in 2013 and 2014 the EPA purchased tens of thousands of dollars of ‘Unmanned Aircraft’ from Bergen RC Helicopters Inc which on a net basis amounted to approximately $34,000.”
“All of the assertions in our oversight report are the quantification of actual spending records produced and reported to us by the federal agencies themselves,” Andrzejewski said.
More retirees are falling behind on student debt, and Uncle Sam is coming after their benefits.
By ANNAMARIA ANDRIOTIS
It’s no secret that falling behind on student loan payments can squash a borrower’s hopes of building savings, buying a home or even finding work. Now, thousands of retirees are learning that defaulting on student-debt can threaten something that used to be untouchable: their Social Security benefits.
According to government data, compiled by the Treasury Department at the request of SmartMoney.com, the federal government is withholding money from a rapidly growing number of Social Security recipients who have fallen behind on federal student loans. From January through August 6, the government reduced the size of roughly 115,000 retirees’ Social Security checks on those grounds. That’s nearly double the pace of the department’s enforcement in 2011; it’s up from around 60,000 cases in all of 2007 and just 6 cases in 2000.
The amount that the government withholds varies widely, though it runs up to 15%. Assuming the average monthly Social Security benefit for a retired worker of $1,234, that could mean a monthly haircut of almost $190. “This is going to catch an awful lot of people off guard and wreak havoc on their financial lives,” says Sheryl Garrett, a financial planner in Eureka Springs, Ark.
Many of these retirees aren’t even in hock for their own educations. Consumer advocates say that in the majority of the cases they’ve seen, the borrowers went into debt later in life to help defray education costs for their children or other dependents. Harold Grodberg, an elder law attorney in Bayonne, N.J., says he’s worked with at least six clients in the past two years whose problems started with loans they signed up for to help pay for their grandchildren’s tuition. Other attorneys say they’re working with older borrowers who had signed up for the federal PLUS loan — a loan for parents of undergraduates — to cover tuition costs. Other retirees took out federal loans when they returned to college in midlife, and a few are carrying debt from their own undergraduate or graduate-school years. (No statistics track exactly how many of the defaulting loans fall into which category.)
Most consumer advocates and attorneys who work with seniors in this predicament told SmartMoney.com that their clients were unwilling to speak on the record, because of shame or fear. But they all stress that stakes involved can become very high for older people on a budget. Deanne Loonin, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center in Boston, says she’s been working with an 83-year-old veteran whose Social Security benefits have been reduced for the past five years. The client fell behind on a federal loan that he signed up for in the ’90s to help with his son’s tuition costs; Loonin says the government’s cuts have left the client without enough cash to pay for medications for heart problems and other ailments.
Roughly 2.2 million student-loan debtors were 60 and older during the first quarter of 2012, and nearly 10% of their loans were 90 days or more past due, up from 6% during the first quarter of 2005, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. “It’s really a unique problem we haven’t had to face before, and it’s only going to grow,” says Robert Applebaum, founder of Student Debt Crisis, a nonprofit advocacy group in Staten Island, N.Y.
The threat of Social Security cuts adds to the overall financial woes faced by the aging baby boomer generation. Almost 45% of people aged 48 to 64 won’t save enough money to cover basic needs and uninsured health care costs in retirement, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Experts say reducing Social Security benefits could set them back even more.
That same generation has been slammed by the soaring cost of college, whether for their kids or themselves. As SmartMoney.com reported this spring, tuition and fees have almost tripled in the last twenty years, growing far faster than wages. Of the more than $1 trillion in outstanding student-loan debt, federal student loans account for about 85%, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. (Private student loans account for the rest; private lenders can garnish a borrower’s wages, but can’t touch Social Security.)
Unlike other consumer debts, student loans typically can’t be wiped out in bankruptcy. And changes in the law over the last couple of decades have given Uncle Sam more power to pursue defaulters, says William Brewer, president of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys. The Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996 empowered the federal government to offset Social Security payments of defaulted student-loan borrowers. An earlier law, the Higher Education Technical Amendments Act, essentially removed any time limits on the government’s ability to collect from the defaulters. The Supreme Court upheld both provisions in a 2005 ruling.
The government’s withholding power also extends to Social Security disability benefits. Tammy Brown of Redding, Calif. says that the government has been taking $179 out of her Social Security disability check each month for the past five years. Brown, 52, became disabled in 1986 after being involved in a car accident. Unable to work, she fell behind on her student loan payments. She says the Social Security check is now too small to cover her food and medical bills, so she quit taking prescription pain pills. “It’s kind of hard to live on this amount of money,” she says.
Attorneys who specialize in defending debtors have seen a sea change as the government has stepped up its enforcement. For most of the last four years, Joshua Cohen, an attorney in Rocky Hill, Conn., has represented clients in their dealings with banks and collection agencies. It was only in the past year, Cohen says, that he started getting a growing number of calls from retirees. Now, Cohen says, “I’m getting calls from all over the country from people desperate for help.”
The Department of Education, which provides federal student loans to borrowers, say it tries to work out payment plans with people who fall behind on their loans. Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the department, says that accounts aren’t sent off to collections until almost two years of non-payment; if collection doesn’t yield results, the loan balance goes to the Treasury Department, which can reduce Social Security checks. “It’s when people aren’t making any attempt whatsoever [to pay] that they start heading down that road,” Hamilton says.
For its part, the Treasury Department says it reaches out to borrowers twice to set up a payment plan or otherwise resolve their debt before offsetting money from their Social Security check. And the Treasury won’t withhold money from monthly checks that total $750 or less, says Ronda Kent, deputy assistant commissioner for debt management services at the Treasury Department’s Financial Management Service.
Advocates of the borrowers say many of them have extenuating circumstances. In many cases, they say, family agreements unravel for instance, adult children who tell their parents they’ll repay the loan end up dropping the ball without informing them. There can also be breakdowns in bureaucratic paper shuffling, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org, a student-loan tracker. In some cases the Department of Education loses track of the borrower, sending debt notices to the wrong addresses; sometimes, says Kantrowitz, the government can’t track down the borrowers until they begin receiving Social Security.
Student-loan experts say that changes in payment plans are partly to blame for why an aging population is still dealing with college loans. The repayment period on federal student loans can be extended to 30 years, Kantrowitz notes, if borrowers owe $60,000 or more. Another eight years can be added on for borrowers facing unemployment or other economic hardship; during those years, payments aren’t required but interest accrues.
Compared to present-day retirees, younger generations are in deeper debt, which means stories of Social Security garnishment could become more commonplace when they enter retirement. Borrowers in their 20s and 30s owe roughly $600 billion, according to the New York Fed. They’re also leaving college with more debt than their predecessors: Sixty-six percent graduated this spring with debt, and their student loans averaging $28,720, up from $9,320 in 1993, according to FinAid.org. “It’s entirely possible that the way student loan debt is growing, this could get worse,” says Rich Williams, higher education advocate at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit consumer group. SOURCE
80 is the new 65 when it comes to retirement, survey says
By Karin Matz | Reuters
– When it comes to retirement, many middle class Americans said 80 is the new 65 and plan to delay retirement because of worries over money, according to a new survey.
Wells Fargo bank asked 1,500 Americans who earned between $25,000 and $99,999 and ranged in age from 20 into their 70s questions about retirement, savings and Social Security for its seventh annual retirement survey.
Three-fourths of those surveyed said they expect to work in their retirement years. One quarter said they will “need to work until at least age 80” to live comfortably in retirement.
Of Americans who will work in retirement, “47 percent said that they are going to continue in the same job or a similar job of similar responsibility,” Joe Ready, Well Fargo’s director of Institutional Retirement and Trust, told Reuters Insider.
“That raises a lot of social and economic implications. Will they have the physical ability to work, the mental capacity? What does that mean for the younger work force in terms of coming through and looking to get ahead?”
Three-fourths of Americans said it is more important to have a specific amount saved before retirement, regardless of age, while only 20 percent said it is more important to retire at a specific age regardless of savings.
In terms of saving for retirement, 53 percent of those surveyed said they need to significantly cut back on spending now to save for retirement.
“People are overwhelmed. They’re not saving enough,” Ready said.
On average, Americans have saved only seven percent of their desired retirement nest egg, with a median of $25,000 saved versus a median retirement goal of $350,000.
“For several years now, we’ve seen that Americans are undersaving for retirement and a majority do not trust the stock market as a place to invest for retirement,” Ready said.
“We did find a bright spot among middle class Americans – more than three quarters do not want to retire with mortgage debt. This is an important goal, particularly for younger Americans,” said Laurie Nordquist, director of Wells Fargo Institutional Retirement and Trust.
Eighty-six percent of respondents said it’s important to own their home debt free by retirement.
On the issue of Social Security there was an age divide. Those in their 60s expect Social Security to provide 46 percent of their retirement funding. But more than a quarter of Americans in their 20s and 30s expect no income at all from Social Security during their retirement.
Obama Nominee for Social Security Board Favors Rationing Health Care
By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
Is it just a coincidence that the people that President Obama nominates to fill high-level governmental posts tend to favor government-directed health care rationing? Last year, Obama nominated Donald Berwick to head Medicare and Medicaid. Now he’s nominated Henry J. Aaron to head the Social Security Advisory Board.
Berwick, to whom Obama issued a dubious recess appointment to circumvent the usual Senate confirmation, has become notorious for statements like, “The decision is not whether or not we will ration care — the decision is whether we will ration with our eyes open” — and, in progressive-speak, “The social budget is limited.”
Aaron, a recent Obama nominee, has expressed similar views. He wrote a piece earlier this year called, “The Independent Payment Advisory Board — Congress’s ‘Good Deed.’” The grisly IPAB, one of the most underreported of Obamacare’s myriad of liberty-sapping features, would have the power to cut Medicare spending each year — if Obamacare isn’t repealed first. The dictates of its 15 unelected members would effectively become law. In fact, Congress couldn’t even overturn the IPAB’s decrees with a majority vote in each house and the President’s signature.
Obama has since doubled-down on the IPAB, seeking to grant it even more power to cut Medicare spending than Obamacare would grant it. To be clear, this is in addition to the nearly $1 trillion that the Congressional Budget Office says would be siphoned out of Medicare and spent on Obamacare during the overhaul’s real first decade (2014 to 2023).
Aaron praises the IPAB, although he does admit to having a few problems with it. He thinks that its largely unchecked power isn’t unchecked enough, as the board should be able to order payment reductions for other aspects of medical care that have so far escaped its statutory grant of power. He writes,
“I admit that the provisions governing the IPAB are less than optimal. For example, recommendations regarding payments to acute and long-term care hospitals, hospices and inpatient rehabilitation and psychiatric facilities are off-limits until 2020; and those to clinical laboratories are off-limits until 2016. These politically motivated restrictions should be repealed as early as possible so the IPAB’s recommendations can comprehend the delivery system as a whole.”
Aaron says that “the survival and strengthening of the IPAB is of critical importance.” In a sense, this is unsurprising, given his earlier views, which were captured in a Washington Post story published during the Reagan administration (when Aaron was in his late 40s). The Post article reads,
“If Americans are serious about curbing medical costs, they’ll have to face up to a much tougher issue than merely cutting waste, says Brookings Institution economist Henry J. Aaron.
“They’ll have to do what the British have done: ration some types of costly medical care — which means turning away patients from proven treatments.
“Cutting billions worth of ‘pure waste’ — in needless hospitalization, surplus beds, Cadillac-model machinery and superfluous tests — would only temporarily slow the growth in health spending, which now tops 10 percent a year, Aaron told a symposium sponsored by the American Academy of Physician Assistants last week in Reston.
“Eventually the ‘cornucopia of technology’ and America’s aging population will combine to drive up health costs by 6 or 7 percent a year anyway unless something else is done, he said.
“That ‘something else’ is what Aaron calls the ‘second stage’ of cost control. It’s a much more complex step, requiring choices that no one — doctor, patient or politician — likes to make.
“Aaron and Dr. William B. Schwartz, professor of medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, recently completed a study of how these choices are made in Britain, a country which spends half as much per person as the United States on health care.
“Some medical services widely available in the United States are strictly rationed in Britain, Aaron and Schwartz report in their book, ‘The Painful Prescription.’ For example, British doctors order half as many X-rays per capita as their American counterparts, and use half as much film per X-ray. They do one-tenth as much coronary artery bypass surgery. British hospitals have one-sixth as many CAT scanners and less than one-fifth as many intensive care unit (ICU) beds….
“Half the patients with chronic kidney failure in Britain are left untreated — and die as a result….
“The key to the British system, they contend, lies not in regulation but in a different attitude toward medicine, mortality and the scarcity of resources.
“Unlike their American counterparts, who tend to believe in saving lives at all cost, British doctors define ‘what is best’ in terms of ‘what is available,’ Aaron said.
“As the director of a tiny 10-bed ICU in an 800-bed London hospital put it: ‘Yes, this would be too small in America. But if you took this unit and set it down in Sri Lanka or India, it would stick out like a sore thumb. It would be an obscene waste of money.’
“The burden of enforcing medical rationing in Britain falls mainly on doctors, who act as ‘gatekeepers’ in the system. They know funds for kidney dialysis are limited, so they simply don’t refer older patients for the life-saving treatment.
“Asked how he could turn away over-55 kidney patients from life-saving dialysis, one doctor told Aaron and Schwartz: ‘What you don’t seem to understand is that everybody over the age of 55 is a bit crumbly.’…
“It will be ‘a lot harder to move into this second stage of rationing in the U.S.,’ Aaron warned.
What’s it like to share your SSN with 50 people? Follow a victim’s struggle
By Bob Sullivan
Jonathan Barnett is also Jose Cruz. And Jesus Ramirez. And Pilar Terrones, Pilar Sanchez, Esmeralda Gonzalez and dozens of other people, at least according to the nation’s identity system.
Barnett unintentionally shares his Social Security number with all those people – and probably many more – yet his credit report and Social Security earnings records are completely clean. That seeming contradiction is a big part of his harrowing identity nightmare.
Barnett’s predilection for assiduous recordkeeping offers a rare glimpse into the deeply flawed identity system used by the nation’s creditors and employers. It relies on the secrecy of SSNs. But Barnett’s number is hardly a secret; it’s the fraud connected to his identity that remains off limits, even to the victim.
“It’s like I have a ghost out there,” he said. “Lots of ghosts.”
The canary in Barnett’s identity coal mine was an innocent-looking email from Wells Fargo Bank. It arrived in August, soon after he opened an account there, offering savings tips.
But the email was addressed to someone named “Pilar Sanchez.”
Then he received another, and another – all sent from Wells Fargo to his email account, but addressed to Sanchez.
Barnett, a 27-year-old who lives and works near Austin, Texas, called the bank. An operator told him it was probably a simple error, perhaps a typo, and that he shouldn’t worry. But he knew better.
For years, Barnett had a sense something might be wrong with his identity records. But each time he obtained his credit report or his Social Security statement, his identity was “clean.” This time, however, he was determined to get to the bottom of the problem.
He started doing research and found out, through various news stories, that a certain kind of identity theft can allow imposters to “share” victims’ SSNs without blemishing their credit reports. So he became more assertive with creditors and changed the way he quizzed them.
“I started calling and asking if they had any accounts under my Social Security Number, without giving my name,” he said. “And if the person I got wouldn’t do it, I just called back and tried again.”
Using this method, he got “hits” – confirmation of multiple accounts under a single SSN — from his own creditors. Credit accounts at Lowe’s and Home Depot were among the first he discovered. Emboldened, he began cold-calling every major creditor — cell phone issuers like Verizon, banks like Bank of America — and asking about his SSN.
He discovered his identity was being used at nearly every creditor he could think of.
“The approach I took was just calling up and saying I had an account and asking them to look it up, because if I didn’t say that, they wouldn’t help me at all. … I just started calling random companies, and my SSN seemed like it was everywhere,” he said. It was if he could throw a dart at any U.S. company, and he’d find his SSN at use there. “It was pretty awful.”
Worse yet, none of these creditors would give him any details about the accounts — ironically citing privacy concerns. He knew his SSN was being used, but he didn’t know by whom, when the account was opened or if it was active. So he switched strategies again.
“I’d give them my SSN only, and then just wait, and they might say, ‘OK, you are Jose Cruz?’ And I’d write that down. Or they’d say, ‘You’re in California?’ And I’d write that down,” he said.
Using this investigative technique, he started to build a vague picture of what was happening, but there were many, many blanks to fill in.
“What shocks me is the unwillingness to cooperate with victim,” he said. “It’s baffling that I’ve never know about it until now.”
Barnett had already done all the basics, such as placing fraud alerts on his credit reports and checking his annual Social Security earnings statement. Again, zilch. So he started making phone calls. He called the FBI, which told him to file a report with his local police department. He called the Treasury Department’s inspector general. He called the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which told him to file a report online. He filed something at the Internet Computer Crime Complaint Center, but was told not much could be done because the imposters were not using his name.
He had his first real “hit” when talking to his credit union, which was forthcoming about results it found looking up his SSN on a system that tracks individuals who attempt to pass bad checks.
“They were more than happy to talk with me about … what they thought was going on,” he said.
Undocumented workers need to provide Social Security numbers when they begin a new job. Often, they provide stolen or invented SSNs. Because employers often don’t check the accuracy of the numbers, the technique is effective. When a particular SSN is used successfully in obtaining work permission, it is often shared with others. Some who use the SSN at work go on to use it for obtaining credit cards, loans, government benefits and so on. If imposters use their own names — or invented names — on those applications, none of the usual identity theft protections will be triggered, and the rogue accounts are not reported on the standard consumer credit report. Instead, the credit bureaus create what are sometimes called “sub-files” to indicate that multiple identities are associated with that SSN. Consumers are generally only able to obtain information about their own sub-file, attributed to their correct name.
It’s unclear how common sub-files are, but identity protection service ID Analytics provided insight into this critical question last year. After studying more than a billion applications for credit, it revealed that 40 million SSNs have multiple names connected to them. While many of these can be attributed to innocent typographical errors or legitimate name changes, others indicate fraud. About 2 million U.S. adults have three or more SSNs associated with their names, said Stephen Coggeshall, head of research at ID Analytics.
How many Jonathon Barnetts are out there? It’s not as rare as you might expect. More than 140,000 SSNs are associated with five or more people, and 27,000 are connected to 10 or more people, according to ID Analytics.
Despite widespread acknowledgment of the problem, Barnett has spent the past four months running into one wall after another when trying to get details about how his identity was compromised and the status of those fraudulent accounts.
“When I call, the data in their records is obviously false. Anyone can see it. I can tell by the tone in the (operator’s) voices that they want to tell me more, but they are hesitant because they’d been instructed not to,” he said. “I found that when I called the California state tax office. I asked them, and the woman told me, ‘Yes, it was very common.’ So common they just issued a different number (to the imposter). I was told not to worry about it if I hadn’t received a letter from them. That just worries me more.”
Barnett later turned to a company named Identity Guard and paid to get a report detailing potential compromises. For the first time he got a sense of the depth of his problems.
Nearly 50 names were connected to his SSN.
“I really gulped when I saw that list,” he said.
Identity Guard says it uses data from a long list of providers to create a database that goes far beyond what consumers get when they obtain a credit report. Public records, such as dog licenses or legal filings, billing applications and payday loans are also included in its database. The firm declined to provide additional detail during an interview.
“If I had to take a guess, I’d say most of this is employment fraud,” said Tim Rohrbaugh, vice president of information security at Intersections Inc., which operates Identity Guard. “If you look at the surnames, that’s what would appear to me.” Because the SSN is not used for financial identity theft, such as opening a credit card and not paying the bill, the compromise often isn’t discovered for years, he said.
The credit industry sometimes refers to this as creation of a “synthetic identity,” because the SSN and name combination don’t actually represent a real person, but merely an entry in a database.
“It stays at a low level so, so the SSN is usable over and over to get a job, or to open utilities. … But it can be just as damaging as credit-based stuff,” Rohrbaugh said.
As Barnett worked his way through the Identity Guard “hit list,” the news got progressively worse.
In September, he found two active bank accounts at Chase; both have been closed by the bank. He found three active AT&T accounts, since closed, and a fourth attempt to open an account. In October, he found a Capital One checking account, an attempted account opening at Bank of America and a federal tax return filed in February using his SSN.
Perhaps most unnerving of all, he found a Verizon account closed back in 2002. He has no idea when it was opened. The discovery means the secret life of his SSN has a long history.
He then recalled an incident when he was in college in 2004, when Bank of America sent him a debit card with someone else’s picture on it.
“They told me it was just a mistake. I was naive about it at the time,” he said.
Two weeks ago, Barnett contacted msnbc.com and asked for help. At msnbc.com’s request, ID Analytics ran his information through its database and found 17 active users of his SSN. Again, because of privacy rules, ID Analytics cannot share the information directly with the victim. But the company shared it with the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center, which maintains confidentiality agreements with the credit industry. That agency is now calling special contacts within fraud departments at the various creditors and helping close the offending accounts.
The nonprofit agency confirmed it is working to help Barnett, but said it was unable to divulge details about his imposters. Karen Barney, program director at the Identity Theft Resource Center, did say the agency has since found abuse of Barnett’s SSN dating back as far as 1995.
Barnett feels like he’s finally getting on top of some of the identity abuse he’s discovered. This week, he also heard from his local police department, which said officers had passed along two potential suspects’ names he’d discovered to local police in other jurisdictions. Such leads are precious — he wants identity criminals to be prosecuted so they won’t continue to abuse his SSN, and so he might ultimately get to the bottom of the problem.
But it’s just a start.
“I could do a lot more if I had names and addresses of all the imposters,” he said. “I feel a little conflicted. I feel good now that I am finding places that can verify the information is stolen. It’s still disconcerting — not only the ID theft, but I’m still hitting walls with companies that have the information.”
Want to share your story as an ID Theft victim? Leave it in comments below or e-mail
Barnett’s father worked in finance, and he was raised to pay close attention to his credit report, his credit card interest rates and anything else connected to his financial life. Many companies he’s dealt with during his ordeal have assured him that he’s suffering no harm; no unpaid bills have surfaced on his credit report, for example. But he’s suspicious of that, and he’s convinced that an unexpected delay in his mortgage application during 2010 can be attributed to his identity problems.
Still, after spending several months obsessing over the problem, he’s come to terms with it.
“It really wasn’t until last couple of weeks that I started taking it in stride. I did let it get to me for a while,” he said. “Now, sometimes, it’s almost like a game for me to call these companies and get more details out of them.”
No one knows how many imposters have his SSN, and no one can really stop others from using his SSN on an application in the future. But better fraud-fighting tools would render a stolen SSN useless to would-be imposters.
“I know a lot of people are working on this problem, but it’s still here. And it begs the question as to why it’s all possible,” he said.
RED TAPE WRESTLING TIPS
SSN-only ID Theft is particularly vexing; it’s almost always discovered by accident, as in this case. Victims might be tempted to request a change of SSN, but the Identity Theft Resource Center strongly recommends against this strategy. The consequences of dropping an old SSN — losing a lifetime of credit history, along with college records, employment history, and so on – are more severe than fighting fraudulent accounts, Barney says. Also, creditors almost always end up linking the new and the old SSN anyway, so the potential benefits of changing are quickly lost. A new SSN only makes sense for very young victims who have no established history, she said.
Reflecting on the Paris exposition of 1900, Henry Adams admitted to being overwhelmed by the new technologies on display. He was awed in particular by the electricity-generating dynamo. One wonders what he would make of the technologies described by Sonia Arrison in “100 Plus.”
“We are at the cusp of a revolution in medicine and biotechnology,” Ms. Arrison announces, “that will radically increase not just our life spans but also, and more importantly, our health spans.” This revolution will “change everything, from careers and relationships to family and faith.”
Consider tissue engineering, in which human organs, grown from scratch or rebuilt in a laboratory, are transplanted into sick humans. It sounds like science fiction, but Ms. Arrison describes the experience of Claudia Castillo, a 30-year-old mother of two children whose windpipe was badly damaged from tuberculosis where it joined her left lung. She had difficulty breathing, and her quality of life was deteriorating rapidly.
Conventional treatment would have required a risky operation to remove Ms. Castillo’s lung. But tissue engineers were able to take a donated trachea and remove the donor’s tissue from the windpipe’s “extracellular matrix,” a kind of biological scaffold. Using stem cells from Ms. Castillo, the scientists grew tissue on top of the windpipe structure, generating a new trachea. It was then transplanted into Ms. Castillo. Since the trachea was engineered with her own tissue, her body did not reject it. With the diseased trachea removed, she was cured of a potentially fatal infection.
Scientists across the world, Ms. Arrison says, are working on engineering close to two dozen different human organs in the lab, including bladders, lungs and hearts. Progress is slow, and it might be decades before bioengineered organs are commonplace, but the trend-line is clear. A force behind the movement is the U.S. military, an eager funder of restorative and regenerative engineering. Dr. Robert Vandre, chairman of the Armed Services Biomedical Research Evaluation and Management Committee, thinks that “ultimately, we will be able to grow limbs” for wounded soldiers.
Such a development would be a cause for joy, of course, but it’s worthwhile to keep in mind the ecstatic predictions a few years ago of the breakthroughs that would be made possible by human-genome sequencing—and the modest gains that have so far resulted. Gene therapy, too, was promoted as a likely source of astonishing medical progress but has recently run into obstacles and setbacks. Predictions are easy; science is hard.
Ms. Arrison is in the hopeful camp. She recounts advances in stem-cell research, pharmaceuticals and synthetic biology. And the tinkering with genes still goes on. We learn about Dr. Cynthia Kenyon at the University of California in San Francisco, who discovered that the life span of the tiny worm Caenorhabditis elegans could be doubled by partially disabling a single gene. Further improvements on the technique resulted in worms living six times longer than normal. “In human terms,” Ms. Arrison says, “they be the equivalent of healthy, active five-hundred-year-olds.” That may be a bit much to expect, but Ms. Arrison says she is confident that “human life expectancy will one day reach 150 years.”
The quest for longevity is an old one, of course, from Ponce de León’s Floridian adventures to Benjamin Franklin’s wondering whether he should have his body preserved in a cask of Madeira wine to “be recalled to life at any period, however distant.” Ms. Arrison entertainingly chronicles efforts to conquer aging and death from antiquity to today. Food, sex, exercise and alchemy have all been employed to keep the grim reaper at bay. But technology offers the most plausible route, she says, noting that biology and computing are drawing ever closer together with the sequencing of the human genome.
What is more, technology heavyweights are paying attention, including Bill Gates (if he were a teenager today, Mr. Gates once said, he’d be “hacking biology”) and Jeff Bezos (“atom by atom we’ll assemble small machines that will enter cell walls and make repairs”). Larry Ellison, of Oracle, started a foundation more than a decade ago to support anti-aging research; the institution donates about $42 million a year.
And if humans do begin living to 150, then what? If Medicare and Social Security are in trouble now, what happens when they must support multiple generations of retirees? In Ms. Arrison’s mind, we’ll be living healthy, productive working lives until very near the end. The more pressing concerns, for her, have to do with the strain on natural resources and the added pollution of a swelling world population.
Noting that similar worries have been raised whenever technology alters social conditions, Ms. Arrison argues that apocalyptic prophecies are unlikely to be realized. Increasing wealth and mankind’s adaptability and ingenuity mean that as new problems emerge, new solutions will be forthcoming. “In looking at the trends of history,” she says, “we can see that even when there are downsides to a particular wealth- or health-enhancing technology, the problem is often fixed once the population reaches a point where it feels secure in spending the resources to do so.”
Ms. Arrison’s sunny outlook is infectious, and surely mankind does have remarkable powers of problem-solving and adaptation. But one can’t help wishing, a bit ahead of time, for some wise counsel from one of those 150-year-olds she envisions, who might be able to tell us whether all the effort and all the dreaming were worth it.
Mr. Schulz is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and editor of American.com.