Nearly half the state's drivers are leaving themselves susceptible to identity fraud by failing to replace their Social Security number on their licenses with a scrambled, state-assigned number, officials said yesterday.
Beginning in October, drivers who renew their licenses online will no longer have the option of using their Social Security numbers, and those who renew in person at a Registry office will be given a state-issued number unless they specifically ask otherwise.
A Social Security number is a master key to personal information and assets, including bank and credit card accounts, and a favorite tool of thieves.
Even though the state began offering an alternative number a decade ago, 46 percent of drivers still use Social Security numbers, said Beth Lindstrom, the state's director of Consumer Affairs.
Kim Hinden, the registrar of motor vehicles, said Registry employees have long encouraged people to use the scrambled number. This change in renewal policy is a more proactive approach, she said, because so many people have not moved away from the old system. "I think people get comfortable with what they know," Hinden said.
Drivers who want to change their license numbers can request one with a new scrambled number for a $20 duplicate fee, or the number can be changed at the time of renewal. License renewal costs $40.
Hinden said she would speak to Romney administration officials about the possibility of making duplicates available for free for those who want to remove their Social Security numbers.
"The changes . . . are critical in the overall effort to protect consumers from identity theft," said Deirdre Cummings, director for consumer programs with the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, who appeared at a news conference with Hinden and Lindstrom.
Last year, 3,634 people in Massachusetts reported being victims of identity fraud, up 40 percent from the year before, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Cheryl Swyers, a US postal inspector and member of the state's identity theft task force, applauded the effort to encourage consumers to protect their personal information.
"It's not just your money," she said, "it's your whole life."