Audra Schmierer, a 33-year-old housewife in this affluent San Francisco suburb, realized she had a problem in February 2005, when she got a statement from the IRS saying she owed $15,813 in back taxes — even though she had not worked since her son was born in 2000. Perhaps even more surprising, the taxes were due from jobs in Texas.
Schmierer has since found that her Social Security number has been used by people from Florida to Washington state, at construction sites, fast-food restaurants and even major high-tech companies. Some opened bank accounts using the number.
The federal government took years to discover the number was being used illegally, but authorities took little action even then.
"They knew what was happening but wouldn't do anything," said Schmierer. "One name, one number, why can't they just match it up?"
Her case is an example of an increasingly common problem: Many thieves are able to steal personal information because employers do not have to verify Social Security numbers or other documents submitted by job seekers.
The situation has long drawn fire from anti-illegal immigration groups, but Congress has only recently moved to fix it. Both the Senate and House of Representatives have passed immigration-reform bills that call for employers to verify Social Security numbers in a national database.
Homeland Security officials have taken it a step further, calling on Congress to allow the Social Security Administration to share information with immigration-enforcement agents at work sites.
Under current law, if the Social Security Administration or the Internal Revenue Service find multiple people using the same Social Security number, the agencies send letters informing employers of possible errors.
The IRS can fine employers $50 for each inaccurate number filed, a punishment that companies often dismiss as just another cost of doing business.
"Sending letters is the limit to what can be done," Social Security spokesman Lowell Kepke said. "We expect that will be able to fix any records that are incorrect."
The information on mismatched names is seldom shared with law enforcement agencies.
When Schmierer called the IRS, she learned that numerous people were using her Social Security number. Officials said the erroneous balances would be eliminated, but the agency would have to correct the problem again in future years.