American Community Survey: Big Brother or Scam?
By Bob Hueston on Jan 08, 2008
Besides asking the address, the names of everyone who lives here, and their birthdays (ideal information for identify theft), it asks questions like:
- Race of each person in the home. (I didn't even think that was legal to ask!).
- How many bedrooms are in this house. (What, are they planning on moving in?)
- Does the house have running water? Hot water? A flush toilet? (Obviously they plan on staying for a while!)
- How many vehicles are kept at the home? (They must be bringing their own car.)
- Last month, what was the cost of electricity for this home? (I hope they plan on splitting the cost of utilities while they're staying with us.)
- Is this a house, apartment or mobile home? (Beggars can't be choosers, I say!)
- Does the monthly rent include meals? (It's a house, not a B&B!)
- What were your wages, salary, commisions, bonuses or tops from all jobs, interest, dividends and rental income, accurate to the nearest dollar. (Do they promise not to compare with the IRS?)
The instructions state "The law requires that you provide the information asked in this survey to the best of your knowledge." (emphasis not added by me). On the other hand, I got an email recently that required me to provide my name, credit card number and mother's maiden name to some eBay-look-alike web site; I didn't fall for that one either. So I read the survey carefully, then tossed it in the recycling bin.
Then I started to get the phone calls.
Of course, I get phone calls all the time, from people claiming to be with the government, with the UK National Lottery Commission, a Swiss probate lawyer for my late, apparently estranged great uncle Harold Steinman who recently died and named me as his sole heir, and even representatives from God himself (why they need to use a phone, I'll never understand). This is what caller ID is for.
After two more postcards, and another copy of the survey, I started thinking, hey, even if this does look phony and smell of a scam, maybe this really is legit. So I went to the US Census Bureau web site to see if there was anything about an "American Community Survey" for 2007. Nope, nothing. There was a survey in 2006, but no mention of a survey in 2007. No way to confirm that this survey is legit.
I checked the address on the postage-paid envelop:
U.S. CENSUS BUREAU
PO BOX 5240
JEFFERSONVILLE, IN 47199-5240
U.S. Census Bureau
Chicago Regional Office
1111 W. 22nd Street, Suite 400
Oak Brook, IL. 60523-1918
The instructions include an 800 phone number. But I learned long ago that if you call an 800 number, your phone number is transmitted to the callee, even if you have caller id blocking set up. Telemarketers use this to capture your phone number, and map street addresses to phone numbers. (I know; I had a friend, a software engineer, who worked for a company that did just that. Her specific software project was designed to call people at all times of the day, just to find out when you answer your phone. That way, they could sell your phone number and the times you're most likely to answer to other telemarketers. She eventually quit her job out of guilt.) And if I did call the 800 number and the guy on the other end said, "Ah, yeah, sure, this is the government. Please send us all your info stuff.", should I really believe them?
At this point, I'm starting to think that maybe, just maybe, this survey thing is legit, but the goverment is entirely inept and clueless about authentication and identify theft. If they really want me to fill out this survey, or the 2010 census in two years, they really should:
- Provide a way I can authenticate that the survey came from the US government. Giving me a phone number is useless; anyone can get a phone number these days. Instead, the instructinos should provide something more authentic, like the URL of a web page, based off of census.gov, that confirms the survey is authentic.
- Provide a way I can ensure that my data is really going to the right authorities, for example, on the web site list the address that should be on the return envelop.
- Encourage, no mandate that everyone visit the web site, and verify the address on the envelop before they mail their response! Anything less is just encouraging people to believe whatever they get in the mail with an official-looking seal; it's tantamount to abetting identity theft.
- Allow people to fill out the survey on the web. Personally, I trust ssl encryption far more than I trust my local mail carrier. On the other hand, I don't really trust the government to secure their servers, so maybe that's a bad idea, too.
Finally, I thought to google '"po box 5240" jeffersonville', and got a hit. Looks like this is a real survey from the Census Bureau, albeit conducted in one of the most shady, disreputable, and hard-to-authenticate manners possible.
In an age where identify theft is a serious business, the US Census Bureau should be keenly aware that the information they process is highly confidential, and a ripe area for theives to exploit. Clearly, based on my personal experience, they haven't gotten that message yet.