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Wednesday, April 8, 2009 10:03 pm

Give me Liberty or give me my identity

Tax service trashes names and Social Security numbers

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Normally, if somebody offered to bring me a sack of trash, I’d find a polite way to say no thanks. But when Glenn Sisco called me, his trash sounded intriguing.

The way he described it, he was at work and decided to step outside for a smoke break. When he went to throw his cigarette butt in the dumpster, he found the container filled almost to the brim.

“I noticed all this paperwork,” he said. “We get a lot of fly dumping, and I like to look through that and get people’s names off their magazines and call them.”

This time, however, the fly-dumped trash wasn’t household garbage; it was a big batch of income tax returns dumped by the nearby Liberty Tax Service store. The forms had apparently been ripped by hand, but in a hurried or half-hearted fashion. Some pages were torn only twice, leaving them in four big pieces. Sisco could see names, home addresses, phone numbers, annual income and plenty of Social Security numbers. He grabbed an armload of papers and put them in a sack.

Later that night, he laid out some of the torn documents, matched the edges and taped them back together. “I did it just to see if it was as easy as it looked,” he said. The simplest was a photocopy of a Social Security card, ripped just once, down the middle.

At that point, Sisco had an almost unlimited range of options. He could co-opt those identities and use the information to open credit cards, or he could sell the taxpayers’ identities to people who could sell them all over again. When I recited this scenario to Sgt. Pat Ross, in Springfield Police Department’s detective bureau, he declined to elaborate on all the harm Sisco could have done.

“It would have been very easy,” Ross said. “I don’t want to give people ideas.”

Instead, Sisco brought the trash to me, because I had recently written about Liberty [see “Give me Liberty or give me my full tax refund,” March 12].

Probably the creepiest phone calls I’ve ever made were to these people whose identities were tossed in the dumpster. There’s just no nice way to say, “Hello, you don’t know me, but I have your name, address and Social Security number.” I don’t know who was more uncomfortable with my having these sacred Social Security numbers — the people I called, or me.

“I just can’t believe that happened!” said one 53-year-old woman, who makes her living driving a semi-truck. “There are people that could be hurt by that.”

Another woman, a retired motel worker, said this was her second year to file with Liberty. She had been happy with their service — until now. “You’d think they’d do it better than that,” she said. “If you can’t handle it right, you don’t need to be in that kind of business.”

A 28-year-old named Amanda, who works in the medical field, said she had recommended Liberty to her roommate, co-workers and friends. “I was extremely pleased and really happy with service,” she said, “but I won’t be going back there now.”

A 26-year-old married man with a household income of more than $80,000 insisted on coming to my office and retrieving his trash. He refused to answer any of my questions, and suggested that someone had an ulterior motive. Another couple called an attorney.

One man I contacted (married, filing jointly), said he and his wife have a shredder at home and shred everything — religiously. “We go to a lot of trouble to make sure our identity is safeguarded,” he said. He is a law enforcement officer with SPD, and asked me not to use his name. Another taxpayer I contacted, Devron Ohrn, works in law enforcement in a nearby county. He also uses a shredder at home. “They obviously don’t care,” he said, about Liberty.

One reason that Ohrn and the other officer shred so much is that, as cops, they understand the legal implications of trash. Once refuse is put out on the curb, or even into a private dumpster, the original owner abandons any “expectation of privacy.” In fact, cops can obtain search warrants using evidence they’ve found in the trash of suspected narcotics dealers.

In this case, no one — not even Liberty — committed a crime. “Honestly, I don’t think they did,” Ohrn said. “It was pretty stupid of them, but they probably didn’t do anything illegal.”

Nor did Sisco, who found the documents and brought them to me. “What he did, in my opinion, makes him a good Samaritan,” SPD Det. Ross said.

“I want to meet him and give him a gift. Or at least a hug,” Amanda said.

I contacted Liberty by phone and by e-mail, but did not get a response by press time. However, according to the company’s privacy policy, Liberty is “committed to safeguarding the privacy of your information.” The company’s privacy pledge is so detailed, it fills a single-page flyer. I know, because Sisco found a copy of it in the dumpster.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.