NY STAR: An accident waiting to happen

The New York State School Tax Relief (STAR) program is an identity theft “accident” waiting to happen. Homeowners apply for property exemptions on their primary residence, and file with their local tax assessors. (In the first year or so of this program, total chaos ensued in assessor’s offices all over the state.) Extra tax exemptions for senior citizens are means-tested, and require homeowners to submit their SSN or a copy of their income tax returns to the local assessor.

  • In New York City, they want SSNs from everybody. Just because it’s authorized by law (in the NYC Administrative Code) doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Everywhere else, they’re only collecting SSNs or income tax returns from low-income seniors.
  • It’s hard to justify leaving so much personal financial information sloshing around assessor’s offices all over the state. And which is worse: copies of tax returns in piles in sleepy small-town assessor’s messy offices, or huge indifferent big-city assessor’s chaotic offices? Need to know? Mind your own business.
  • As their normal traffic is public information, assessors are not necessarily tuned to protecting private personal information. For a recent example of a public record agency handling private data, see the story of how the Suffolk County (NY) clerk’s normal processes put a few thousand SSN’s in the public record [via Emergent Chaos].
  • Perhaps all these violations of “don’t ask for information you don’t need” and “don’t store information you don’t need again” were less serious even a few years ago, but the consequences of these old ways are getting worse every day.
  • Though it’s hard to patch the process perfectly, one simple fix would be to direct the flow of sensitive information away from local offices, e.g. create a state tax return checkoff that allows the income tax people to inform the assessors about eligibility and primary residence status without revealing any income information.
  • Well, the politics is irritating too. Creating yet another “take with one hand, give back with another” program is inefficient, and clearly its primary purpose is to create an opportunity for attaching a politician’s name to a tax cut, with extra discrimination making the program harder to kill.

Update 3/7/2006 see also: The public servants at the Ohio secretary of state insist on treating documents that pass through their hands as public despite embedded SSNs.

Update 4/11/2006 see also: Broward County (FL).

Leave a Reply