Identity theft–from your employment records

We’ve all been hearing a lot about the rise in identity theft, where someone takes your name, social security, birthdate, or other identifying information to establish credit, rent apartments, make large purchases, etc–it may have even happened to you. What you may not have heard is that the thief may have obtained your identifying information at work, from supposedly confidential personal files. As reported in USA Today, anyone with access to personnel files can use that information to carry out identity theft, and often that access is relatively widespread. (See USA Today article.) The thief may be a disgruntled employee with a vendetta, someone who works in the HR department with widespread access to personnel information, someone seeking revenge against the company or certain employees, or a contractor, temp employee, or cleaning person who obtains a job specifically to gain access to the company’s records. Companies can contribute to the problem by leaving sensitive information in paper files in unlocked file cabinets, allowing computer files to be accessed by more individuals than is necessary, and even by requiring widespread use of an employee’s Social Security number, such as on a security badge. Some companies go to great lengths to protect client and business-related data, but do not use the same standards to protect employee data, even though a just-released Federal Trade Commission study indicates that 90% of business record thefts involve payroll or employment records, while only about 10% are customer lists. (See FTC report, January 22, 2003). While it may seem like there’s little you can do to combat identity theft, this report may be helpful in encouraging your employer to take extra precautions to keep personnel information private, especially since some companies are now being sued for negligence over the way personnel records were handled. Try to use your social security number and other identifying information as little as possible at work, and be sure not to leave credit card receipts in desks or wastebaskets. If you have been the victim of identity theft, the FTC maintains a web site on identity theft at, where you can learn more about identity theft and how to file a complaint if you have been victimized.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.