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A Ghost of an Identity

by Neal O'Farrell on April 2nd, 2013

Ever wondered if you have a ghost identity? Not necessarily a doppelganger or a fetch (you’d have to be Irish to get that) but a real person living secretly and mysteriously under your identity? It’s more common than you might think, and it’s often because of something in your credit report called a sub-file.

Take the case of Marco (not his real name). He’s an artist, in his late sixties, and leaving a very peaceful life in Northern Arizona. Peaceful, that is, until he gets yet another alert from his identity monitoring service that someone else is using his Social Security number.

Thinking immediately that he had become yet another victim of identity theft, he went straight to his credit reports to see how bad the damage was. But there was no damage. The problem for Marco is that there’s no sign of any fraud or identity theft in his credit report, no fraudulent accounts opened, no damage to his credit score, and no debt collectors looking for money from him.

Marco is the victim of a sub-file, an almost secretive additional credit file that the credit bureaus keep on millions of consumers. Credit bureaus are really like intelligence agencies, and some boast that they have more personal information gathered on U.S. citizens that all the U.S. national intelligence agencies combined.

The bureaus are hounds for information, and any time a Social Security number is used in the wild, it usually ends up in the files of the bureaus. Even if it’s the wrong name associated with the SSN, even if no credit is applied for, and even if no fraud has been committed.

That information can simply come from a mistake, an incorrect filing, a typo, or some other innocent event. But as soon as the bureaus come across the information, and can’t figure it out, it usually ends up in a consumer’s sub-file where it lives forever.

And that’s why Marco continues to get these alerts. Some other person or persons are associated with his Social Security number, which keeps triggering the alerts. The bureaus won’t do anything about it because they either don’t know or don’t care who the real owner of the Social Security number is.

As the bureaus are very quick to point out, they don’t grant credit and can’t be blamed for people who give credit to the wrong identity. Bureaus simply gather personal information, package it, and sell it. Even if there’s a ghost or two in the machine.

As a story on NBC reported, often the ghost identity is as a result of identity theft. Illegal workers might purchase or even invent a Social Security Number in order to get a job, and if the new employer doesn’t verify the person’s identity, that new hybrid identity is now in the system. But it’s not in the  credit report of the person that Social Security Number really belongs to because his or her name doesn’t match.

And in the NBC story, that same SSN can then be shared among and between other illegal workers so that eventually dozens of people are all working under the victim’s Social Security number. Yet no trace of it in credit reports, Social Security earnings, or anywhere else. Except that is, in a sub-file somewhere in the deep dark basement of a credit bureaus.

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