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Financial Literacy - Protecting your identity Click Here
Guard your Social Security number
Your SSN should be treated as "classified information." Few people have the right to access it.
Protecting your identity

Guard your nine-digit ID number

Everybody asks for it, but few need to have it. Everyone from employers to utility providers will request your Social Security number, or SSN. Only certain entities can legally require you to provide your SSN, while others simply can refuse service if you don't disclose it. Then there are situations in which you never want to reveal your nine-digit identifier.

Be stingy about giving it out.

"Essentially the Social Security number is the No. 1 key to identity theft. Without a Social Security number, fraudsters are going to be quite limited in what they can do," says Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Fraudsters can still access existing accounts, he explains, but it will be hard for them to open new accounts without it.

Learn when you need to disclose your SSN and how you can avoid giving out too much personal information by heeding some simple guidelines.

3 rules for guarding your Social Security number
Be stingy and downright inflexible with your SSN
When it's optional
Sometimes entities that don't need your Social Security number will request it anyway, to verify your identity, to check your credit, as a way to track you down in case you default on payments or simply collect it for possible future use. If you refuse to provide it, the company may refuse service.

Examples: Physicians offices typically ask new patients for their SSNs. Experts say doctors don't need the number, but can always refuse service if you don't share it.

"They're basically asking for that because in the event you don't pay or your insurance company doesn't pay, it facilitates them going after you for the money that you owe," says Stephens. "Typically my experience has been, if you have some sort of underlying insurance so that your obligation to pay is generally going to be limited either to a small co-payment or co-insurance, they're more likely to let you get by without giving out that information."

Utility providers may ask for your Social Security number when setting up your account, for the purpose of doing a credit check.

"The recommendation here would be if you don't want to give it out, speak with them, negotiate with them and in some situations it may be possible to provide a security deposit in lieu of providing an SSN. That's going to vary from utility to utility and from state to state, depending on what regulations might have been issued by the Public Utilities Commission," says Stephens.

The same goes for applying to rent an apartment or obtain a new cell phone. A landlord may accept a higher security deposit instead, but barring that, you may find yourself strong-armed into divulging your Social Security number to get the apartment or the mobile phone.

Government agencies may request your social, but they are required to provide you with a statement as to how it will be used, in accordance with the federal Privacy Act of 1974. If a government entity asks for your Social Security number, you probably want to provide it, because generally if you don't, you won't get the service or benefit, says Stephens.

Tip: "There might be other situations in which a private business requests your Social Security number," says Stephens. "The recommendation is ask them, 'Why do you need my Social Security number?' and make a determination as to whether or not there's a legitimate need for the business to have it."

  What's your secret to success with ID theft?
Or, are you struggling? Share your story.
-- Posted: April. 21, 2008
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