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Billionaires left exposed

Billionaires may be unwittingly giving out their Social Security numbers to millions of users over the Internet.

Billionaires hire a cadre of high-powered lawyers and security people to guard their privacy, but they may be unwittingly giving out their Social Security numbers to millions of users over the Internet.

CNET readily found the Social Security numbers of such leading American businessmen as Time Warner's vice chairman Ted Turner, Intel's chairman emeritus Gordon Moore, Hewlett-Packard's deceased cofounder David Packard, and Microsoft's cofounder Paul Allen through the Securities and Exchange Commission's Edgar database--all in less than an hour.

Once obtained, users can turn to a burgeoning number of online Web sites and use the nine-digit number to search for sensitive information such as current and previous addresses. The charge usually is nominal, $20 or less, and takes less than three minutes.

The wide availability of such information has raised legal and other concerns. Criminal activity ranging from credit card fraud to illegal immigration is often associated with illicitly obtained Social Security numbers and other information. While the SEC has always had access to this information, it's having the Edgar database online that lets anyone obtain the information with very little effort.

One SEC official, who asked not to be named, stressed that the agency's forms state that the Social Security information is voluntary and warn that they will become public record once divulged--much like the details contained in a lawsuit or divorce papers.

One such form read: "Disclosure of the information specified in this schedule is mandatory, except for Social Security or IRS identification numbers, disclosure of which is voluntary...This statement will be made a matter of public record."

But the document makes no mention that the information is being published online, a detail that could make its signatories change their minds, privacy experts say.

When informed of Social Security numbers online, many company executives were surprised. Ted Turner's assistant paused and then referred the call to Time Warner's public relations staff.

Others expressed concern. "We've been filing that form since 1978, and we know that it's always been a matter for public record," an HP spokesman said. "But the Web makes it so much easier for millions and millions of people to access it that it is a concern for us."

The Social Security numbers are contained in relatively obscure filings made by the executives to the Securities and Exchange Commission. They typically involve the purchase or sale of large blocks of stock.

The documents have been available to the general public for years, but only in printed form from the SEC or the companies themselves.

Law enforcement officials, lawyers, and private eyes often use private databases to obtain Social Security numbers. But the Net makes anybody an instant sleuth. Since May of last year, the complete database of SEC filings have been available online through Edgar, putting them at the fingertips of millions of Net users.

"These guys have a lot of money and assets," said Glen Roberts, publisher of Full Disclosure, a newsletter on privacy issues. "I don't think there's any excuse for a government agency to publicize anybody's Social Security number." Roberts has tested the Edgar database himself to find the Social Security numbers.

Social Security numbers were originally assigned to track earnings for tax purposes, but are used by government agencies, schools, and businesses to identify nearly everyone. Six million Social Security numbers are issued each year.

If your number is stolen and misused to run up bills, the Social Security office will not straighten out your record; you have to do it yourself.

The SEC is aware of the problem. "The information is much easier to access, and it's becoming more of an issue," said the official. But she added: "It's everywhere. You go to Blockbuster to rent a video, and they want your mother's maiden name."