Target Corp. just announced that it would stop running criminal background checks on potential employees. Good, because among other things the practice discriminated against needy, capable senior citizens who committed minor infractions during the Summer of Love. Worse yet, job applicants must supply their Social Security numbers and birth dates to people who may expose them, however unwittingly, to identity thieves. No one could quibble if responsible Human Resources personnel checked into those in the final stages of the hiring process on any level, but today a job application form with a low wage employer — or even a classy one — is like something one should fill out before being approved for a U.S. ambassadorship. This has disturbing implications for all of us.
Some (not Angela Merkel or Edward J. Snowden) would say we are paranoid to protect our little-people identity and guard the on-ramp to all our financial information, so let us monetize this issue. The Internal Revenue Service says it mistakenly pays as much as $5.2 billion annually in tax refunds to criminals filing false returns using Society Security numbers they have stolen. The IRS estimates that known identify fraud cases have grown by 650 percent since 2008. I suspect that is due in part to exposure of personal data on the Internet. I myself was amazed to obtain the foreign passport number of my pesky neighbor when I entered his distinctive name alone into a Google search. I, of course, will use this power for good, but protecting my own information from faceless or over-eager strangers has worked against me.
Three years ago I was dumbstruck when two sympathetic, responsible women at the New York Botanical Garden asked for my Social Security number and birthdate the first (and only) time they interviewed me for a position in their public relations department. Not having looked for a job in a while, I said I knew they would need that information if I became a finalist for the job. I never heard from them again. The request shocked me and felt like a horrible violation. Common sense indicated it was a terrible risk.