America's Hardest Working Boy?

Posted: Jun 21, 2007 12:01 AM
America's Hardest Working Boy?

He would need to have been the hardest working boy in America, for -- according to documents that employers filed with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Social Security Administration (SSA) -- his efforts were not merely Herculean, they were miraculous.

He was born in September 1991, and by the time he was 7 -- according to W-2 reports bearing his Social Security Number (SSN) -- he had taken multiple jobs. From 1998 to 2001, employers filed more than 3,900 W-2s using his SSN.

By 2002, when he was 12, as measured by W-2 reports, the boy was holding down 919 jobs in 42 states.

But, as you might have already guessed, this boy was not really America's most prodigious worker. He was one of America's most prodigious victims of SSN misuse. Other people were using his SSN to work in the United States.

The basic facts of his story were published in a September 2005 audit report by SSA's inspector general. (That report, by the way, did not indicate whether the child was male or female. As a rhetorical convenience, I refer to him here as a male.)

This child's story is extraordinary, but not singular. The inspector general discovered that in tax year 2002, there were 11 SSNs that were used more than 400 times.

In fact, past SSA inspector general reports have discovered that certain employers, year after year, file massive numbers of W-2s that bear fraudulent SSNs or valid SSNs that don't belong to the employee using it. These W-2s go into what SSA calls the Earnings Suspense File (ESF), where SSA deposits what it calls "no-match" W-2s.

About 9 million of these are filed per year, and SSA Inspector General Patrick O'Carroll told Congress last year "the chief cause" of them "is unauthorized work by non-citizens."

Now, meet one of the great absurdities of U.S. law: If SSA were to discover that someone was misusing your SSN like they misused the SSN of the boy whose number showed up on 3,900 W-2s over four years, SSA could not tell you about it. "Congress has not provided authorization to disclose this information in the situation you described," SSA spokesman Mark Lassiter told me. Nor would SSA refer the case to a law enforcement agency. "This tax return information is also generally restricted from disclosure to law enforcement agencies by Section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code," said Lassiter.

SSA, however, would try to contact the employee who used your SSN and, most likely, the employer who filed the W-2 on his behalf.

SSA conducts two vast correspondence programs aimed at fixing "no-match" W-2s. One is called "decentralized correspondence" (DECOR). It sends a letter to the employee address listed on the W-2 asking the employee to fix the discrepancy. If the employee's address is unavailable or incorrect, DECOR sends a letter to the employer who filed the W-2. In tax year 2002, SSA mailed 7.6 million DECOR letters to employees and 1.9 million to employers.

The other program is called "educational correspondence" (EDCOR). It sends a letter to every employer who files more than 10 no-match W-2s in a given year if they equal at least 0.5 percent of the employer's total W-2s. (Prior to 2002, they had to equal at least 10 percent of the employer's total).

Employers that are egregious filers of no-match W-2s are bombarded by notifications. In 2002, the inspector general's audit discovered, 95 U.S. employers received 1,000 or more DECOR letters.

This can have a positive impact on an honest employer. For example, a New York-based "staffing company," the audit report said, received 13,954 DECOR letters and one EDCOR letter in 2002. The auditors contacted the New York SSA office and "determined that this employer is currently participating in the Social Security Number Verification System (SSNVS) program," which "is an online service that enables employers and submitters to verify employee names and SSNs with information in SSA's records for the W-2 reporting purposes."

This system has been available nationwide since June 2005. Since 1983, however, SSA has also operated an "Employee Verification Service," allowing employers to check SSNs by phone. Also, the 1996 immigration law initiated Basic Pilot, a joint SSA and Department of Homeland Security employee verification program that has been available in all 50 states since 2004.

Even without a new massive immigration bill, employers who want to obey the law can. A government that wants to enforce it could.

I have written before about two lists produced by SSA that -- if not for Section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code -- could provide Homeland Security with a detailed map to the worksites of employers who routinely file massive numbers of "no-match" W-2s. One list, produced annually, identifies every employer who filed more than 100 no-match W-2s the year before. The other, produced by SSA's inspector general in 2004, lists the 100 employers who filed the most no-match W-2s from 1997-2001.

Three of these employers filed more than 100,000 no-match W-2s over five years. Ten had more than 70 percent of their W-2s in the no-match file.

Congress should immediately pass a simple law mandating that SSA hand over these lists to DHS and that DHS investigate the most egregious filers of no-match W-2s.

Who knows? They might discover that, like that child born in 1991, you, too, have been holding down several hundred jobs you didn't know about.