How were Social Security numbers given away?

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CONCORD, N.H. — When Tropical Storm Chata’an struck the Federated States of Micronesia in 2002, the U.S. government sent 1,300 blankets, 4,000 disposable diapers, 30 cases of sardines — and my Social Security number.

The nine digits that govern so much of Americans’ identities are supposed to be ours for life — and only ours. But mine ended up linked to a Micronesian man who defaulted on a disaster loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

I didn’t find out until March, in a letter from a debt collector threatening to garnish my wages if I didn’t pay $7,306 in two days. The same could happen to an unknown number of others, because of a processing glitch that the U.S. Social Security Administration didn’t even know existed and the federal government hasn’t fixed.

Who is giving away American Social Security numbers to strangers in other lands? The answer is not so simple.

The problem involves three Pacific island nations, each of which has its own, independent Social Security Administration. The three — the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau — grant defense rights in the region to the U.S., and in exchange receive aid, including grants and loans after disasters.

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