Why can’t the US government do this?

I was at a Labor Day cookout on Monday, and I was talking to a friend who's been doing some work for a construction company at a job site in Texas. At some point, he mentioned that a lot of the construction workers there are Mexican (not a big surprise), but then he went on to describe the adventures they've got in trying to verify their identities and right to work in the US, and I was dumbstruck at what's going on -- not because it's happening, but because it would be very, very easy to put a big bite on this problem. Read on to see the problem and how we could get on top of this.The scenario we're talking about, once again, is one where workers are showing up and the employer is trying to verify employment eligibility. The problems my friend was describing all had to do with Social Security numbers. I know this doesn't cover all employment eligibility scenarios, but let's start with SSN's and build out from there.

One of the things his company caught was a fraudulent Social Security card. A guy shows up with a card - everything looks just fine, and the guy starts working, in fact. When a second person reviews the paperwork, however, he sees a SSN with "00" in the middle -- an illegal number for a Social Security number. The supervisor calls the guy into his office and explains that the card's fraudulent, and that he needs to leave. The empoyee shows up at the end of the day with -- you guesed it -- a new card that has the numbers "fixed". The company knew what was up, so they turned him away, but he probably found employment somewhere else using his "new and improved" Social Security card.

My first reaction was that there surely must be a way to automate that sort of checking.

There is.

A little quick searching turned up a number of options:

  • Carnegie Mellon's SSN Watch Lab. This is an academic page that does some basic validation on an SSN to allow you to tell if it's a reasonable number, and to see some real rough demographic data about the person to whom it's been issued. The idea here is that you should be able to spot a person who's way too young for the card they're using, and so on.
  • SSN Validator. This site does even better - it'll tell you whether a number has actually been issued, and if so, whether records show the person to be alive or not -- a helpful bit of information when trying to find fraudulent SSN's, because a lot of bogus cards use recycled numbers.
  • Finally, the US government actually does have a facillity to check SSNs: Business Services Online.
  • The other problem my friend observed also sounded like one that should be pretty easy to stay on top of. Apparently, it's pretty common for these workers to claim *lots* of dependents, so that their tax witholdings drop to nothing. Now, if you've really got that many dependents, this makes perfect sense. But what if you're working under a fraudulent SSN, and you never intend to file a tax return? In that case, claiming a ton of dependents also makes a whole lot of sense.

    So, how do you check the number of dependents? If there's never been a tax return filed using that SSN, it's impossible to check. Even if there is a tax return, it will be difficult to tell for sure, but you can probably flag some "unusual" increases for follow-up when tax returns roll in. Worst case, you can watch for SSNs that rack up wages and then don't file a return (hopefully, this is already happening).

    But what about privacy? It's not really a problem as long as the only information you get back is "ok" or "not ok". All the information you'd send in is already known to you, since you collect it while starting a new employee anyway. Keeping the answer generic and compact keeps the answer private. If you go the route of the SSA's Business Services Online, the SSA can also track who's requesting information. You wouldn't want to have someone wrap a service in a loop and generate a list of valid SSNs!

    So, with a little investigation, it looks like most, if not all, of these checks are already available. Now, how about a little legislation forcing employers to use them? It sounds like the problems my friend described are pretty prevalent, and it also looks like a big chunk of them are easily prevented.

    Why in the world wouldn't we want that?