NEW YORK - Banks fighting the fastest-growing financial crime in the U.S. have found an unlikely ally: the Social Security Administration.
Banks have spent years lobbying Congress for better access to the agency's data as a way to fight costly forms of identity theft. Now, the agency has invited lenders and other firms to join a planned real-time electronic system for verifying that credit applicants' names match their Social Security numbers.
The system would help banks eliminate sham identities created when fraudsters apply for credit cards using Social Security numbers that aren't in use. Known as synthetic identity fraud, it is the fastest-growing financial crime in the U.S., according to a report this month by the Federal Reserve. U.S. lenders lost $6 billion from this type of fraud in 2016, according to consultant Auriemma Group.
"It's a painful type of fraud," with criminals commonly targeting children and immigrants, said Jeremy Grant, a coordinator for the Better Identity Coalition, which works with lawmakers to improve digital security.
The new system is "a pretty big arrow to have in your quiver," he said. "So much of synthetic identity fraud has been targeted around the inability of the private sector to validate whether the SSN matched to a real name. It's going to have a pretty significant impact."
Spokesmen for the Social Security Administration didn't respond to messages seeking comment.
The Fed is pushing to raise awareness and encouraging banks to help prevent the crimes. Last month, U.S. prosecutors in New York alleged that 11 people participated in a scheme using synthetic identities to charge $3 million on lines of credit from banks including JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Synchrony Financial between 2013 and 2017.
Synthetic identity fraud is typically a long con. Armed with a made-up identity, fraudsters spend years paying the monthly credit-card bills, watching their credit limits slowly tick higher. When they're ready, they max out the cards with no intent of paying the debt, a phase known as "busting out."
"There's probably a lot of synthetic identities that are currently on the books at banks that they don't know about yet," Casey Merolla, a managing director at Accenture Plc, said in an interview. "It's really difficult for the banks to spot."
The Social Security Administration has long required handwritten consent from consumers to allow lenders to confirm identities. Under that system, banks pay a one-time $5,000 enrollment charge plus a fee every time they look up someone.
"This is definitely a big step forward," said Naftali Harris, co-founder of SentiLink, a startup that helps banks detect and block synthetic identities. "We work with the paper forms and have those sent into our office -- working with our partners, we process them on their behalf. It's really challenging for our partners to use and really challenging for consumers to use."
The Social Security Administration has long said the numbers it issues aren't intended to serve as the country's universal personal identifier and were instead created to administer government benefits. But last year, under a law signed by President Donald Trump, Congress required the agency to begin developing the new system for banks.
There's a catch: The agency has to have 50% of startup costs funded before it can begin developing the portal. In a notice posted with the Federal Register last month, Social Security said banks have until July 31 to join the program. Bigger banks may pay as much as $3 million to be part of the initial group.
The verified number "is one more piece of extremely valuable information for when a bank is evaluating an application or a potential new customer," said Jason Kratovil, executive director at Consumer First Coalition, an industry group focused on privacy and fraud.
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