The SIN's of our leaders
Date: Wednesday, October 09 2002
Topic: International News
The SINs of our leaders
By GREG WESTON -- Sun Media
OTTAWA -- What kind of boondoggling government agency would issue 225 different social insurance cards to the same address last year without thinking there might be something amiss?
Answer: The federal department of human resources (HRDC), the same folks warned by the auditor general in 1998 that government mismanagement of social insurance numbers had become a dangerous national calamity, inviting fraud on a massive scale.
Five years later, the same department under the same Liberal minister, Jane Stewart, has apparently managed the remarkable feat of fixing almost nothing.
In a scathing follow-up report released yesterday, Auditor General Sheila Fraser notes that issuing hundreds of SIN cards to the same address is merely part of a continuing problem: "Most of the ... weaknesses we found in 1998 have not been addressed."
Ensuring the integrity of the SIN system is much more than a matter of privacy.
This year, the SIN will be the key account number on more than $10 billion of annual Employment Insurance claims, and for more than $40 billion of Canada Pension and other old age security payments.
It is also the primary identifier for a broad range of other federal and provincial benefits programs such as health insurance, social assistance, welfare and workers' compensation.
In the wrong hands, a SIN card can be a powerful weapon of fraud.
Despite the critical importance of guarding the SIN system, the auditor general describes the current administration as something more like a comedy spoof.
Here's a sample of her findings:
* There are five million more SIN cards in circulation than there are Canadians over the age of 20.
* Over eight million numbers issued prior to 1976 have never been verified against a single other piece of identification.
* An estimated 500,000 active SIN cards bear names of dead people.
* Almost 1.6 million supposedly "temporary SIN cards" -- given mainly to refugee claimants and short-term foreign seasonal workers -- have been issued with no expiry date.
* The government has been issuing a SIN to anyone with one piece of identification, including a birth certificate that has no photograph or physical description to help identify the bearer as the actual owner.
* The government has been accepting "certified-authentic" photocopies of ID, but fails to check to ensure the person who certified it is authentic.
* The 38 types of identification documents the government has been accepting include expired passports (no matter how old), foreign immigration papers, and a whole range of baptismal certificates and other documents that anyone can order off the Internet.
* The 255 SIN cards mailed to the same address was one of "many" cases uncovered in which the department had sent over 100 different numbers to one place.
* In 1998, the auditor general complained that SIN fraud investigators were receiving little or no training and support. They still aren't.
* In an attempt to help SIN staff spot fraudulent identification documents, the department launched a program to provide all investigators and front-line workers across the country with special ultra-violent lamps. The auditor general reports most have either not received the lights, or have the equipment but no training in how to use it.
The potential political impact of the auditor general's latest damning indictment of government stupidity was certainly not lost on the Liberal spin doctors.
Within minutes of Fraser's report being released yesterday morning, Human Resources Minister Stewart was rushing to the microphones to announce "significant changes to our program."
And why has she waited five years after the last auditor general's report before starting to fix such an obvious mess?
"We're living in a different world, and post Sept. 11, that requires different measures."