Analyzing Identity Theft

In my human resource management class, a student stated that he thought it was illegal for employers to ask job applicants for their Social Security numbers. His statement surprised me; but, when I asked what others thought I discovered that most of the students agreed.  Many even said they would refuse to give their Social Security number on a job application to protect themselves from identity theft.

I told a friend who is a first-class human resource consultant about my classroom exchange.   She said I shouldn’t be so surprised because she and other HR consultants were encouraging companies to eliminate Social Security numbers from their job applications.  The new “best practices” standards are to not ask for any personal identifying information until after the company has made a conditional offer of employment.  Again, these “best practices” standards are to protect identity theft which seems to be a growing paranoia.

I find this situation very disturbing because the problem is upside down.  Rather than eliminating Social Security numbers and other personal identifying information from job applications to prevent identity theft, we need to eliminate identity theft.  Social Security numbers were created for employment purposes – to show that a person is authorized to work in the United States and to maintain a record of each person’s earnings and withholdings history.  It seems to me that all job applicants should be required to provide a valid Social Security number on their job application and before they progress any further in the hiring process this information needs to be verified.

In a personal conversation last year, two of my friends who have a company that conducts background investigations told me that the previous year they had a 28 percent “hit” rate, meaning that 28 percent of the resumes and job applications they checked had false information.  When I asked what kinds of information was misrepresented, they said it included almost anything – educational degrees the applicants never received from schools they had never attended, previous work experience from employers that didn’t exist or from whom they had never worked, previous salaries that were overstated, even home addresses that were wrong.  With a “hit” rate this high, why would any employer put someone who submits a dishonest resume in a position of trust, or any other job for that matter?  In short, waiting to request a Social Security number until after you have made a conditional offer of employment is a mistake even if it reduces identity theft.

I’m sure we could reduce auto theft if people quit buying cars and used public transportation.  We could also eliminate burglaries and property crimes if people quit purchasing nice things or if we eliminated the private ownership of property.  That would be like eliminating horse thieves by declaring that all horses were public property rather than something that you could own.   But that’s not what they did in the Wild West; horse thieves were hanged or shot and perhaps we should take a lesson from our ancestors.

In a front page article, The Wall Street Journal reported the going rates for stolen information, such as $5- 7 for Social Security numbers, $2- 4 for email addresses, and $30- 400 for bank account numbers (9 Nov 2007, A1).  The fact that there is a market for stolen electronic data should be very shocking to everyone in society.  It convinces me that as a society we need to do a lot of talking.  Our social standards have not kept pace with our technological advances.  The misuse of electronic data is just as wrong as the theft of any other property.  Intercepting someone’s email is just as wrong as stealing someone’s mail, which is a federal offense.  The fact that the information is electronic does not eliminate or reduce the moral obligations surrounding it; it only makes the harm that can come from misusing it more convenient and serious.

Within our society, we need to clarify the ethical issues surrounding the use of technology, such as the seriousness of creating a virus, the dysfunctional consequences of sending mass emails, the inappropriate uses of cell phones, and the destructiveness of misusing someone’s identity.  Some computer viruses, for example, have been more destructive to companies than if someone had bombed their buildings.  We need clearer standards of what is right and wrong and more consistent advertisement and application of the penalties for violations.  No one should think that creating a destructive virus is simply an interesting intellectual challenge, that the mass distribution of a pornographic email is just a teenage prank, that using false credentials for getting a job doesn’t really matter, or that talking on one’s cell phone during a public meeting is a trivial disruption.  Violators probably shouldn’t be hung or shot; but we need to have a serious discussion of appropriate consequences and we need to start applying them more forcefully.  $

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