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1940 Census data: A treasure trove for con artists?

Data from the 1940 census, released Monday, has excited Americans looking for more information about their heritage. But the information could also help identity thieves.

In this file photo, William Austin, director of the US Census Bureau (r.) helps President Franklin D. Roosevelt fill out the large form at the White House in Washington. Information from the 1940 census was released Monday.

AP/File

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The release of the 1940 Census data is a treasure trove of information for historians and Americans who want to know more about their genealogy.

But is it also going to be a toy store for con artists and identity theft thieves?

Some computer-security experts are concerned that release of the information may give those with less than pure motives an opportunity to defraud. Senior citizens – there are some 21 million Americans still alive from the 1940 Census – are often the victims of scams.

The worry is that they may be conned by people who learn personal information. But the information release may also be pertinent to even younger Americans, since many banks use security questions such as mother’s maiden name and the street you grew up on.

“This is real data,” says IT security consultant Jeff Farr, president of Farr Systems in Dallas. “It gives identify thieves the chance to legitimize, to put together a picture, a timeline which can be used to manipulate victims into giving data.”

“The next thing you know they are going shopping on your credit card or filing a tax return with your information,” he says.

The US government official who is most concerned about identify theft, Maneesha Mithal, associate director of the FTC’s Division of Privacy and Identity Protection, was not consulted about releasing the data.

“Anytime there is more information about us, whether it’s on social-networking sites or public information, there is an increased risk of identity theft,” says Ms. Mithal. “Certainly there are benefits and risks to releasing the data.”

In 2011, the Federal Trade Commission reported that identify theft was the top consumer complaint. Of the 1.8 million complaints to the agency, 279,156 or 15 percent concerned identity theft. One of the latest scams involves individuals who are filing tax returns of other individuals and collecting their tax refunds with the help of dishonest postal workers.

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