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Published Aug. 5, 2007

Scott Giordano didn't know his identity had been stolen until he decided in 2005 to move to take a new job. He had put a down payment on a house and quit his job as a San Bernardino, Calif., firefighter before hearing that he had failed a background check conducted by the employer. The reason: There were nine people, in different parts of the country, employed under his Social Security number.

"We went from thinking we were moving to a beautiful state to a great new job and a beautiful home to spending a year doing everything and anything we can just to make it," Giordano said.

A decade ago, identity theft was almost unheard of. Last year, 15-million people became victims of the crime, researchers estimate. It has become so common, some say, because Social Security numbers are emblazoned on too many easily accessible documents - both on paper and the Internet - and companies have been careless in their handling of personal data.

Your Social Security number is a key identifier that can allow criminals to open credit in your name - and even blame you for their crimes. You are generally not held liable for fraudulent charges by thieves who steal your identity, but clearing your credit records of bogus accounts can take months and cost thousands of dollars. In the meantime, as in Giordano's case, the damage to your life can be incalculable.

"The fundamental problem with identity theft is that we use Social Security numbers as an identifier and an authenticator, and yet this number is littered all over society," said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director at U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a Washington advocacy group.

The federal government is among the biggest culprits, displaying Social Security numbers on Medicare cards carried by 42-million seniors and on military identification cards carried by millions of members of the armed services and their families.

The House Ways and Means Committee in July unanimously approved a bill that could sharply reduce the incidence of identity theft by barring companies and the government from displaying Social Security numbers on a variety of documents and Web sites. It also would prohibit the sale of the numbers except in limited circumstances.

The measure also would prohibit businesses, schools and government agencies from displaying the numbers on the Internet or on checks, employee identification cards, student IDs or any other card used to gain access to goods and services.

Utilities and other entities also would be barred from requiring people to provide their Social Security numbers as a condition for receiving service, Mierzwinski said.

Yet, despite the fact that the bill sailed through the Ways and Means Committee, some say the measure will have a tough time becoming law unless voters get up in arms, calling and writing their legislators to get them to support it.

So perhaps the most important step you can take to prevent identity theft is to urge your representatives in Congress to vote for such legislation.

Linda Foley, founder of the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego, said 39 states have laws that allow consumers to stop credit bureaus from giving their information to anyone. And most states have laws that require companies to notify customers if their information is compromised in a security breach. But the federal government has neither protection.

"This bill," Foley said, "is at least a step in the right direction."