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BEHIND THE WHEEL

ID Numbers Add Up to Confusion at DMV

Hundreds of people seeking licenses are rejected daily because records don't match Social Security files.

August 19, 2003|Sharon Bernstein | Times Staff Writer

Tried to renew your driver's license lately?

The Department of Motor Vehicles says that 560,000 to 800,000 Californians are erroneously rejected for license renewals each year, thanks to a glitch in the system for collecting Social Security numbers.

In the late 1990s, as part of the welfare reform package passed under former President Clinton, the U.S. began requiring states to collect the Social Security numbers of people wishing to obtain or renew a driver's license. The idea was to use the information to track down deadbeat parents, whose lack of child support payments had presumably forced their children onto welfare rolls.

Over time, the state started collecting Social Security numbers for other reasons as well: to identify people in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to screen out illegal immigrants and to help prevent identity theft.

Except for one problem. The DMV verifies the number you provide against the records of the Social Security Administration. And if it's not an exact match -- if there's a letter out of place in your name, or if you got married and changed your name without telling Social Security -- your license application is rejected.

Because the system hasn't been in place that long, most applicants don't know about it and are blindsided when their license renewals are rejected.

Karen Kukurin Olsen, a San Fernando Valley public relations consultant, took her husband's last name when she married. She changed her name on her driver's license, as well as on a number of other legal documents, but she neglected to go to the Social Security office to update the records.

As a result, her renewal application was rejected -- even though her existing license already showed the same name: Karen Ann Kukurin Olsen.

At the DMV counter, Olsen said, she was issued a temporary license and advised to go to a Social Security office within 60 days to confirm her name or risk revocation.

"It was ridiculous," Olsen said. "And the woman behind the counter just put up her hands in frustration.... She said it happened every day."

California DMV Director Steven Gourley blames the Social Security Administration. He says the federal agency uses a cumbersome old computer system to check the names for the DMV, even though there is a more sophisticated system available.

This "Ford Pinto system," as Gourley calls it, simply matches name, birth date and Social Security number. The other system, a "Cadillac," checks for nicknames and maiden names, eliminating hundreds of thousands of erroneous rejections.

In a series of letters that began in 2000, Gourley and other DMV officials have complained that the federal agency's process for verifying the numbers is too simplistic.

"We have now wasted over 13 pages of correspondence between our two agencies as well as 10 years of negotiations," Gourley wrote the federal agency in one letter. "Over 800,000 people are 'not matching' as a result of the inadequate service you are providing."

Social Security spokesman Lowell Kepke confirmed that many names are rejected on the basis of something simple, like letters out of place or a DMV record that uses a nickname instead of the given name on the Social Security card.

Such errors are easy to fix, he said, but the driver must go to a Social Security office in person. If the problem is one that seems obvious -- if, say, Sharon Bernstein is listed as Shari Bernstein -- Social Security officials update their records and notify the DMV immediately that the name on the license is correct, he said.

Other changes require identification or proof of a name change, such as a marriage license.

For that matter, Kepke recommends that women who change their name upon marrying update their Social Security records. This is important, he said, not only for driver's license renewal, but for other government matters.

For example, he said, if a woman works and pays taxes under her married name, but is in the Social Security system under her maiden name, she might not receive full credit for income earned during her lifetime. This could cause problems when she retires, because Social Security benefits are determined by lifetime income.

For its part, Social Security has suggested that the state could avoid the problem by collecting the data but not trying to verify it, according to the letters between federal administrators and the DMV. Gourley dismisses that idea, saying that it would lead to identity theft by allowing people to invent or steal Social Security numbers in order to obtain phony IDs.

In a letter dated July 30, Associate Social Security Commissioner Annie White wrote Gourley that the agency had set up a work group to study the matter.

In the meantime, however, both sides offer the same advice: Go immediately to a Social Security office if you do change your name, making sure that your records are up to date.

"Our advice would be to use the same name on all the records to avoid having to go through this again, any time, ever," said Kepke of Social Security.

If you have a question, gripe or story idea about driving in Southern California write to Behind the Wheel c/o Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, or send an e-mail to behindthewheel@latimes.com.

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