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House Panel Approves SSN Protection Bill

A House panel today unanimously approved legislation to limit the sale, purchase or public display of Social Security numbers (SSN). The bill would apply to both the government and private sector in hopes of stemming the occurrence of identity theft.

Under The Social Security Number Privacy and Identity Theft Prevention Act, the federal government would be prohibited from selling or displaying SSNs to the general public, including on the Internet. Encryption or other security measures would be required for transmission of Social Security numbers.

The prohibition would also prevent the government from using SSNs on checks, Medicare cards and identification cards issued to government employees, as well as patients and students at public institutions.

The bill imposes the same restrictions on the private sector in addition to prohibiting the unnecessary disclosure of another individual's SSN to government. The legislation would also prohibit a person from obtaining another's SSN for the purpose of harassment, harm or other illegal purpose.

"The use and abuse of Social Security numbers is rampant in our society," bill co-sponsor Sam Johnson (R-Texas) said. "The best way to stop Social Security numbers from being compromised is to limit their availability in the first place, and that is what this bill does."

The bill also creates new criminal penalties of up to five years in prison for violating the law on the display, sale, purchase or misuse of SSNs. Repeat offenders could face up to 10 years in prison. Drug trafficking, crimes of violence and terrorism involving the unauthorized use of SSNs could bring prison terms of 20 to 25 years.

Social Security Administration employees who fraudulently sell SSNs would face criminal penalties of up to five years in prison and a maximum $250,000 fine.

"Social Security numbers are available for sale on the Internet right now and criminals have many opportunities to exploit that," Louisiana Republican Jim McCrery, another co-sponsor of the bill, said. "It is time to place some common-sense limits on the use of Social Security numbers by government and businesses in order to reduce their easy availability and ensure the privacy of this sensitive information."

Exceptions to the law for the government would include facilitating law enforcement efforts or national security investigations, ensuring the accuracy of credit and insurance information or for tax purposes.

In the private sector, exceptions are carved out for child support investigations, health or safety emergency situations or the sale, lease or merger of a business. In addition, SSNs can be transferred to others with the express written consent of an individual.

For both the government and the private sector, further exceptions may be made by additional regulations from the Social Security Administration, the Department of Justice and state attorneys general.

Similar legislation is pending in the Senate but no votes have been taken.