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The U.S. Supreme Court is trying to determine whether the federal government should be held accountable for the way it may have exposed consumers to identity theft.

The case in question, U.S. v. Bormes, involves the government listing several details of consumers’ credit card numbers when they paid fees through the U.S. government’s Pay.gov payment system, according to a report from Reuters. The receipts from these transactions contained credit cards’ expiration dates or more than five digits of a debit or credit card number, which technically violates the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act.

As a result of this practice, a lawyer filed a suit on behalf of a client named James Bormes, which eventually became a class action against the federal government, and has been fighting the battle in appeals courts since 2010, the report said. The law only permits claims against a “person,” but that includes any “government,” meaning that the federal government could be held liable.

Originally, the federal government said that this did not apply to it because it had not waived its immunity, but an appeals court rules in 2010 that a separate law — the Tucker Act — allowed for money claims to be made against the government, the report said. Lawyers for the federal government say that the FCRA simply does not allow for it to be sued, but Chief Justice John Roberts said this may not be the case if the two laws are considered simultaneously.

“FCRA does not specifically address the liability of the United States,” Roberts told Deputy Solicitor General Sri Srinivasan, according to the news agency. “The Tucker Act does.”

However, in general, there is a tradition that the federal government is immune to all suits brought against it until it decides that it will waive its immunity, the report said. Justice Elena Kagan said she wondered whether it would be appropriate for the Supreme Court to allow for this case to go forward unless that happens, as it may set a troubling precedent in the future.

Identity theft has been a widespread and growing problem for some time now, and as a consequence, many consumers need to do more to protect themselves from falling victim to this crime. This can include checking over financial documents such as credit reports, bank statements and credit card bills for entries they do not recognize.

Image: dbking, via Flickr

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