BOSTON (CBS) — It’s the number one most sensitive piece of information any of us have. Despite that, WBZ’s I-Team found people’s Social Security numbers stamped across countless criminal court documents publicly available to anyone who asks.
Among those, the I-Team was able to easily find sensitive information on a high ranking Boston Police officer. His Social Security number, phone number, mother’s maiden name have all been made public.
“We’ve spent a long time working to figure out how to protect personal information,” said Deirdre Cummings, a privacy advocate with the Massachusetts Public Interest Group, known as MASSPIRG. The I-Team showed her court files with social security numbers and other private information on display. “This is a roadmap for anyone who wants to steal somebody’s identity and wreak havoc on their financial future,” she said.
Also disappointed to learn about the lack of security, is a woman who knows all too well what it’s like to have a Social security number fall into the wrong hands. “It’s traumatizing,” said the woman who asked us not to use her name, because she’s still dealing with the fallout after her daughter’s wallet was stolen with her SS card in it.
“They took out loans in her name,” she said. “They rented apartments, and they damaged apartments. A lot of cars were rented in her name, and some of them were returned damaged.”
Thieves not only assumed the victim’s identity but also accessed her parents’ information through their joint banking accounts. “We have spent thousands of dollars because you want to clear your name.”
The I-Team checked courthouses from Boston to Waltham, to Framingham, and Attleboro, among others. All gave out documents with Social Security numbers next to people’s names in full view, for any member of the public who requests them.
“That’s unacceptable,” said Cummings.
The state’s highest court ruled on the issue in 2016, saying investigators are not required to redact Social Security numbers “in criminal and youthful offender cases,” saying it would “impose a substantial burden on these law enforcement agencies, which necessarily must document the personal identifying information…”
The Massachusetts Trial Court System confirms there is no general policy to shield Social Security numbers from the public. According to the high court’s ruling, it would not be up to court clerks to keep that information from public files. It would be up to attorneys and police to redact them.
Privacy experts say it’s time they start. “A courthouse is full of a lot of people who could be innocent or could be guilty of various crimes,” said Cummings. “Here, we are literally presenting a roadmap on how to steal somebody’s identity.”