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Food Banks and Identity Theft

Scary Choices for Hungry People


Things are tough all over. Despite the fact that experts have declared the recession officially over, the country has an unemployment rate nearly double what it was when President Obama took office, record foreclosures, repossessions and bankruptcies. Food banks and homeless shelters are becoming highly frequented places for more and more Americans. So it concerned me deeply when I heard a local food pantry was copying social security numbers from their patrons before they could get any help.

Of course, I had to go see what was up for myself.

It’s Risky Getting Help

Food pantries or food banks are usually stocked by charitable contribution, most frequently sponsored or maintained by a religious organization. Any time you’ve gone to an event that included a canned food drive, this is usually where the canned food ends up. Individuals and families that are down on their luck can go to the food bank for some help with their groceries.

There are a few individuals who will try to take unfair advantage of these programs, so food banks have come up with various ways to track their clients – mostly to make sure the same person or family doesn’t return too soon for more charity.

The food pantry I visited was located in a local community center. I walked to the desk and told the receptionist I would like to get some food. She asked me to sign in on a clipboard, and shuffled some papers on her desk looking for a form for me to fill out. My eye caught a stack of photocopies sitting on her desk – driver’s licenses and social security cards. I glanced around the room and saw the person whose information I was reading sitting nearby. I looked the opposite direction, and my eye fell on a stack of outgoing mail. I picked the top piece up to verify it was what I thought it was… yes, W-2’s were being mailed out. The receptionist didn’t notice I had taken the mail. (Naturally, I put it back.)

The gal behind the desk handed me a clipboard and asked me to fill out the form. On top of the form was a paper that said I was required to provide a picture ID, Social Security card for every individual in my household, proof of income (meaning a check stub) and my most current utility bill. At the top was a simple note: “Without any of the items the counselor cannot start processing your application.”

I asked the receptionist if that meant I had to provide all of these items: Yes sir, yes it did. I pointed at the stack of photocopies and asked if my information would be copied as well. Again, yes sir, it would. I asked if I could see a copy of the privacy policy, one of the questions I recommend all consumers know how to ask. I was shown a paragraph toward the back of the packet of papers I was asked to fill out. It said my information was collected because the pantry was subsidized by state funds. I clarified my question – what I was actually looking for was the FACTA-required document that tells you how your personal information is maintained, shared, and disposed of. I was told I’d need to speak with the supervisor.

When the supervisor came out a few minutes later, I explained who I was, and why I was asking for this information. I was pointed to a page on the receptionist’s desk, which had a bit more information, but indicated that the full disclosure was in another document. I asked for a copy of that document. I was told it was under lock and key in the Director’s office, but the Director wouldn’t be available until tomorrow.

I told the supervisor my concerns, pointing out the W-2s and plainly visible photocopies on the receptionist’s desk. I suspect she felt I was just complaining, because her responses seemed like the sort of thing I would expect to hear in a customer service environment (and I’m sure that as a supervisor she hears complaints every day.) She gave me the Director’s phone number, we exchanged pleasantries and I went home.

My biggest concerns with the visit were the obvious lack of protection given to client’s sensitive information, as well as their employees. The W-2s lain out in the open for the mailman are a goldmine to identity thieves, and the receptionist obviously wasn’t very concerned with them.

The stack of photocopies, considering the information this particular food bank was demanding, would be enough for even a fledgling identity thief to wreak havoc with several lives in just a few hours. Of course, if you have to go to a food bank, you’re probably not going to quibble over what information they’re requiring. I’m certain they didn’t know how to take me when I told them “Nevermind.” and walked out.

But there’s a subtle point in my experience as well. While the personal information (protected by state and federal laws) was left in the open for anyone to look at (or possibly even steal,) the privacy policy was under lock and key, unavailable when requested. It did not seem to concern the supervisor in the slightest that she was talking with an identity theft expert who was pointing out that there were serious problems that needed to be addressed – but in all honesty, if you’re an identity theft expert, you are used to that.

Where does that leave the family that has to rely on this service? Unfortunately, it leaves them with a tough choice: go hungry or gamble on becoming a victim of identity theft.

My recommendation would be to avoid food pantries that keep copies of this information. I could make a reasonable case for them wanting to see a social security card and driver’s license, but the rest of the information is overkill. And in no circumstance can I see the need to photocopy the information and keep it on hand.

Most churches will participate in some sort of relief program that will provide some basic needs for the public, without requiring you to put your identity at risk in order to eat. Most of them won’t even require you to be a member of their church to get help.

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