In the autumn of 2003 I received a telephone call from a collection agency named the Mercantile Adjustment Bureau, which is located in Rochester, New York. It soon became clear that while the man they were interested in had the same last name as mine, our first names were different. Indeed, the man in question, who had an apartment in the building I live in in New York, was not unfamiliar to me. I had received other calls along these lines and was able to discover that he was using his wife’s name in his telephone account and had apparently given out my name and telephone number to a creditor.
The man from the collection agency said that he could find out who was living in any apartment in my building because of a computer program he had, and, indeed, he confirmed my story. When I expressed admiration for his program he noted that he could also tell me my Social Security number. At this point the conversation took a different tone and I insisted on knowing how he had gotten that information. He told me that he had obtained my number from Accurint, a subsidiary of a Boca Raton company called Seisint.
This was worrying. If someone has your Social Security number, you run the risk that he or she may use it for a variety of illegal purposes. For example, since Social Security numbers are now a common form of identification, someone can use your Social Security number and his or her own name to establish credit, with the result that the credit of the legitimate owner of the Social Security number is jeopardized when the fraud is discovered. The company granting credit may then track down your identity and report it to a credit agency. This is one of the reasons why people are advised to verify that there are no unexpected changes in their credit ratings. In June 2004 the Salt Lake Tribune reported:
Making purchases on credit using your own name and someone else’s Social Security number may sound difficult—even impossible—given the level of sophistication of the nation’s financial services industry…. But investigators say it is happening with alarming frequency because businesses granting credit do little to ensure names and Social Security numbers match….
A Web search revealed that Seisint was founded by a former drug smuggler named Hank Asher. In 1982, he flew seven loads of cocaine in his private plane from Colombia to Florida before retiring. He began a new career by inventing a computer program that, given a street address, could locate every vehicle registered to that address. He next created a program called AutoTrack which could take bits of information such as your home address and come up with information on drivers’ licenses.
Some time later he founded Seisint. He remained on the board of the company until 2003, when his drug smuggling past was exposed and he was forced to sell his shares. But Seisint and Accurint…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.