(CBS SF) -- Most people know that their social security number is the key to their identity. Security experts advise that you protect it at all costs. However, ConsumerWatch reporter Julie Watts discovered that one state agency is putting millions of social security numbers at risk despite state laws intended to protect it.
When former IRS employee Maxine Hines recently filed her first unemployment claim, she was appalled to see that the California Employment Development Department printed her full 9-digit social security number on every document the agency sent her in the mail.
"I was astounded to see my social security number on all those documents," Hines told ConsumerWatch.
Hines said she has always been diligent about protecting her identity. She always shreds sensitive documents and won't even give her social security number to her doctor.
While Hines was surprised to learn that the State of California was putting her sensitive information at risk, she said she was even more troubled by the response she got when she called the EDD to complain.
"She kind of laughed a bit, and said 'A lot of people have complained,'" Heins recounted of her phone conversation with someone at the EDD.
The Federal Trade Commission's David Newman says he's surprised that the state agency is still printing full social security numbers on any documents it mails to the public.
Anything that's coming from a state agency is likely to be a signal to an ID thief that there might be something useful inside, and if there is, then your social security number has been compromised" Newman pointed out.
Several sates, including California, have laws that prohibit printing "an individual's social security number on any materials that are mailed to the individual, unless state or federal law requires the social security number to be on the document to be mailed."
In a statement, the EDD said "The EDD is required to use Social Security Numbers in the administration of its programs." However the agency did not cite anything specific in state or federal law that that requires it to print the full social security number on mailed documents.
The agency also said "the only way the Department can ensure it has information about the correct individual when contacting the claimant by correspondence is to have the full SSN on the document."
However, Newman points out most state and federal agencies stopped printing full social security numbers nearly a decade ago. He says most have figured out a workaround: masking most of the number or just printing the last four digits.
"I'm not in a position to comment on whether they're exempt from state law, but they're not exempt from best practices" said Newman.
For now, Hines has come up with some best practices of her own. She's now scratching out her social security number on every page the EDD sends. She hopes she won't have to for long.
"I think the state of California should correct that immediately - immediately," Hines said.
The FTC warns that, in addition to mail theft, thieves also look for documents like these in the trash.
The EDD said it doesn't track complaints on the topic, but the Privacy Rights Clearing House says this is a common complaint.
In response to this story, the EDD said it is now "reviewing technical and cost options available to us to limit the use of personal information in mail correspondence. As EDD continues to upgrade its systems, the Department is reviewing opportunities and capabilities to use an alternative unique identifier to print on claimant notices in a manner that will not impede the rights of claimants."
for more features.