Opinion Matters

With Gazette Opinion Editor Greg Peck

Greg Peck: An era when Social Security numbers weren't guarded

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Greg Peck
Friday, March 13, 2015

I read a column by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Jim Stingl last week. He wrote that when longtime Editor Marty Kaiser was cleaning out his office, ending his 20-year career at the newspaper, he unearthed three remarkable framed mementos. One was a handwritten march, “The Journal,” that composer John Philip Sousa wrote for the newspaper in 1924. The second was an American flag that famed explorer Richard Byrd gave to the newspaper after his historic flight over the North Pole in 1926. The last was an irritated letter to the editor written in 1951 by Wisconsin's notorious commie hunter, U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

As recent retirements have rolled through The Gazette newsroom, lots of office cleaning has likewise occurred here. Scott Angus left his office for the last time Thursday after serving this newspaper 36 years, including the last 25 as editor. He found nothing so valuable, however.

Marcia Nelesen likewise did long overdue desk cleaning in recent months as she moved to a new spot in the newsroom and reduced her workload to 10 hours per week. This longtime reporter’s messy desk had become legendary. A Bliss Communications executive once came upstairs for a chat, made the mistake of leaning on one of Maria’s piles and was nearly killed in the avalanche.

OK, his escape wasn’t nearly so dramatic. But he did order a newsroom cleanup.

Anyway, Marcia unearthed an amazing slip of paper the other day. It was an entry form for The Gazette's Social Security number sweepstakes. You filled out the slip with your full name, address, phone number and, yes, your Social Security number.

Did we actually print the Social Security numbers of the winners back then? Who knows? Marcia thinks the crinkled, yellowing entry form predated her employment period, perhaps sometime before the 1980s, she guessed. Angus looked at the slip Wednesday and thought it might be from the 1960s.

But I think they're both wrong. This morning I realized the entry form includes the newspaper's nameplate from its Page 1 flag in a style we started using around 1991. We used it until about five years ago.

Remember when people had their driver's licenses or Social Security numbers printed on their checks because stores would ask for that information anyway? At UW-Oshkosh in the late 1970s, I used my Social Security number as my student ID and thus memorized it. Andrew Beaumont, our design editor, came from North Dakota and recalls when Social Security numbers doubled as driver's license numbers in that state.

My, how times have changed. Today's Gazette brings news of two women who tried to fraudulently buy items at Walgreens stores in Janesville using copies of credit cards. The Associated Press also reports that fake IRS agents have targeted more than 366,000 people and conned more than 3,000 out of $15.5 million since 2013.

As The Gazette reported March 2 in a story on tax identity theft, state and federal officials warn people to not share their Social Security numbers unless necessary. If the number is needed, these officials urge you to ask why and how it will be stored and used.

News of another scam—or another security breach that has exposed customer Social Security numbers at some company—comes almost daily. Obviously, The Gazette's Social Security sweepstakes came in a bygone era—though not so far distant, really—when identity theft was no big concern.

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or [email protected]. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or [email protected]. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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