The United States Government Accountability Office has released a report on federal and state laws restricting the use of Social Security numbers. Despite such legislation, public and private sectors' use of the numbers is widespread, the GAO found. Government agencies frequently use Social Security numbers to administer programs, verify applicant eligibility, and conduct research. These numbers are still widely available in a variety of public records. In addition, certain private sector entities, such as credit reporting agencies and health care organizations, also use Social Security numbers.

Although there is some consistency in the various proposed and enacted federal and state laws, gaps remain in protecting personal information from fraud and identity theft, according to the report. Recent statistics show that identity theft is increasing, with a rise in the total number of fraud and identity theft complaints to the FTC in 2004.

In 1936, the Social Security Administration established the numbers to track worker's earnings for Social Security benefit purposes. Despite their narrowly intended purpose, numbers now are used for myriad non-Social Security purposes. The aggregation of personal information in large corporate databases and the increased availability of information via the Internet may provide criminals the opportunities to commit identity theft, the GAO noted.

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