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How to protect your Social Security Number

At a glance

  • Your Social Security number (SSN) is a hot commodity among identity thieves, who can use it to open financial accounts in your name, ruin your credit or steal your tax refund.
  • Many businesses and government agencies routinely ask for your SSN, but you are not always legally required to provide it.
  • To reduce the chances of identity theft, limit the times you share your SSN and take care to learn when it’s not needed.
  • Learn more about practical personal finance in the Everyday Economics and Finances course at University of Phoenix!

Your Social Security number (SSN) is a popular number. At doctors’ offices, credit card issuers, banks, utility companies and many other merchants you do business with, it’s the go-to identification method.

Unfortunately, it’s also prized personal information that unscrupulous individuals can use to commit identity theft and robbery.

Identity thieves can use your birth date and SSN to:

  • Create fraudulent accounts and take out fraudulent loans, including a mortgage
  • File a fraudulent tax return in your name and claim your tax refund
  • Open fraudulent credit cards
  • Fraudulently obtain official documents like passports or driver’s licenses
  • Hide from law enforcement, commit immigration fraud or work illegally

The more frequently your Social Security number is shared, the more likely it is to be exposed to identity theft, disgruntled employees, computer hackers and others who seek to misuse and profit from it. This can have severe consequences on your credit, reputation and personal finances, and it can be costly and time-consuming to correct.

Prevention, in other words, is the best medicine. Read on for what you need to know.

Who needs it?

Must you hand over your SSN every time someone asks for it? The answer is a resounding no.

Social Security numbers were created in 1936 to track worker earnings and determine Social Security benefits. Since then, they have become a convenient way to confirm a person’s identity. While many entities have begun to recognize the pervasiveness of identity theft (federal agencies like the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense stopped using SSNs on ID cards in recent years), many healthcare service providers as well as other sectors still rely upon SSNs. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form, for example, still requires it.

Some organizations now ask for “only” the last four digits of your SSN, but you should be just as cautious supplying that as you are with the full, nine-digit number. That’s because the rest of the number can be easily figured out using public information.

For SSNs issued before 2011, the first five digits indicate where and when the card was issued, so if someone knows where and when you were born, it’s easy to figure out your complete SSN from the last four digits.

There are relatively few entities that legally have a right to your Social Security number. These include:

  • The Internal Revenue Service
  • Employers (but not before you’re hired, so a job application form should not require it)
  • Banks, credit card issuers and other lenders when you open a bank account or submit a loan application (banks report interest payments made to you to the IRS, and lenders need to run a credit report to determine your eligibility for a loan)
  • Government-funded programs like state unemployment, workers’ compensation or health insurance obtained through the Affordable Care Act, as well as the FAFSA form
  • Investment firms and brokerages that need to report your income to the IRS
  • The Department of Motor Vehicles

Who doesn’t?

First, never share your SSN or other personal information with someone or some business unfamiliar to you. This includes during an unsolicited phone call or an unsolicited email.

If you didn’t initiate contact, make sure to verify the organization’s or person’s identity and the validity of the request before you disclose your SSN.

Second, you aren’t legally required to provide your Social Security number to any business. Keep in mind that those businesses may choose not to work with you if you refuse to share your personal information. Of course, you can take your business elsewhere as well.

Here are some other entities that may request (but don’t have a right to) your SSN:

  • Public school systems: They may seek to confirm your address with your SSN, but you can usually provide utility bills instead.
  • Children’s summer camps, sports leagues and gyms: These organizations may request your SSN when you register, but they can use alternate information to complete the process.
  • Supermarkets: If you sign up for a frequent shopper card, you may be prompted to provide your SSN, even though it’s not vital to the transaction.

In most of these cases, providing your Social Security number helps to confirm your identity, and then the organization stores it on a server. But the more your personal information circulates, the more likely it is to be misused. And whether or not those servers meet data security standards to prevent unauthorized access or disclosure is anyone’s guess.

Third, pharmacies, hospitals and doctors’ offices routinely request your SSN on intake forms, but the main reason for doing this is to facilitate debt collection should you fail to pay your bill. 

Medical records, which often contain Social Security numbers, are attractive targets of data breaches, according to Allstate, as identity thieves may use such personal data to try to obtain fraudulent medical treatment and prescriptions. Also, medical staff might also share patient data inadvertently. In fact, this type of breach accounts for over one-third of all healthcare-related data breaches, according to Allstate.

Alternatives to sharing your SSN

If you don’t have to provide your SSN, keep it to yourself. Instead, leave the space blank or provide some form of photo identification, like a passport or a military, student or employee ID card.

Don’t, however, supply your driver’s license. This is another form of ID that thieves can do a lot of damage with.

If a merchant persists, try asking:

  • Why do they feel providing your SSN is necessary?
  • How will they keep it safe?
  • With whom will they share it?
  • How will it be stored?
  • What is their privacy policy?
  • Will they cover your losses if your SSN is compromised?

Don’t be afraid to share your concerns about identity theft. Pushing back and heightening awareness among staff may be necessary. Other times, you may find that an office or organization doesn’t actually require your SSN but has yet to update their forms.

Ultimately, your SSN is a commodity with a great deal of value. Some states, including California, already prohibit using Social Security numbers as patient identifiers. The American Medical Association has taken a stand to oppose such use as well. Until that stance becomes the norm, however, the choice to share it, or not, is yours.

Want to strengthen your personal finance game? UOPX can help.

Whether you want to learn more about budgeting and balancing your personal accounts, are interested in a career in finance, or simply want to batten down the hatches of your personal information, there’s one path to empowerment: education.

Explore these different offerings from University of Phoenix for a variety of goals:

  • Everyday Economics and Finances: This individual course pulls back the curtain on how money and math function in our day-to-day lives and society. This course is ideal for those looking to make a big impact with a foundational understanding of finances.
  • Bachelor of Science in Finance and Technology: Learn the ins and outs of money management and financial tools and technology to enhance your career in finance.
  • Advanced Cybersecurity Certificate: Want to protect your information? Your company’s? This 18-credit certificate underscores IT security with foundational knowledge around preventing data breaches. It also includes hands-on experience with IT labs.
Photo of blog author Dawn Handschuh

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dawn Handschuh has been putting pen to paper for more than 30 years, writing widely on topics related to student lending, personal finances, everyday money management and retirement planning. She makes her home in Connecticut with her husband and two energetic German shepherds.

 

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