Guard your Social Security number
"I think it's spooky. Everybody
has that one number, and everything about you is tied to it. Put
it in a computer and poof -- here's your bank account, your phone
number, where you work ... "
-- Jim Edwards
Veteran radio newsman Jim Edwards was way ahead of most people. Back in
the early '80s he refused to give his Social Security number when
he enrolled at Miami Dade Community College. The school wanted to
use it as a student identification number, but Edwards held his
ground and the school gave him a different number -- all zeros,
as he recalls.
Schools, phone companies, utilities, health clubs,
insurance companies, video stores -- just about everybody wants
your SSN. Some of the more prevalent uses are to get your credit
rating and determine whether you pay your bills, and to keep track
of you through name and address changes.
But companies also use your number to develop marketing
lists, which they can sell to other companies. A list with the numbers
is more valuable than one without.
Why should you care who sees your Social Security number? The more people
who see it, the more susceptible you are to identity theft, where
you are victimized by someone fraudulently using your name and credit
report to steal money.
Identity theft costs American businesses billions
each year, costs that are eventually passed on to all consumers.
The toll on victims is heavy, too. The California Public Interest
Research Group estimates that, on average, identity theft victims each
spend 175 hours and $800 trying to clear their records of fraudulent
"I've seen accounts opened with wrong names and
different addresses. As long as there's an SSN, that's all some of
them care about," says Linda Foley of the San Diego-based Identity
Theft Research Center.
Who has the right to ask for
While any business or agency can ask for your number, few can actually demand it -- motor vehicle departments, tax departments
and welfare departments, for example. Also, SSNs are required for
transactions involving taxes, so that means banks, brokerages, employers,
and the like also have a legitimate need for your SSN.
Most other businesses have no legal right to demand
"There is no law prohibiting a business from
asking for your Social Security number, but people don't know they
can say no," says Carolyn Cheezum of the Social Security Administration.
"We recommend that you ask if they'll accept
an alternative piece of identification. If they don't, flat-out
refuse to do business with them. Bear in mind that there's a possibility
they'll refuse to provide whatever product or service you're seeking."
Edwards, for example, won't give his SSN to his doctor's
"When you go to the doctor's office and fill
out the medical information, they ask for the SSN. I leave it blank.
Nothing happens. I'm not reporting income from them."
In fact, chances are good that many companies that
routinely ask for SSNs will do business with you even if they can't
have your number.
"We ask for a Social Security number to open
an account, but it's not required," according to Michael Lowndes
of the Long Island Power Authority.
"The Social Security number is just part of the
customer's record. A common problem with utility accounts is people
open an account, default and reopen another account using the same
Social. We can use that to discover the problem."
Kimberly Brown at BellSouth headquarters in Atlanta
says there's a procedure the company follows if someone doesn't
want to give their number.
"We ask them to fill out a questionnaire to determine
their payment history. We don't do a credit check; we depend on
them being honest. The questionnaire determines the BellSouth rating
for them, and then that determines whether they'll have to pay a
deposit to establish service."
Linda Foley of the Identity Theft Research Center
says she brought her critically ill cat to a vet's office and balked
when she was asked for her SSN.
"I said why? Will it be my cat's ID number? They
said no, but if you give us a check we want a driver's license and
a SSN in case the check bounces. I said I'd pay by credit card.
They said it's our policy to get the number.
"I said if I give you a credit card and refuse
to give you my Social Security number you'd let my cat die right
now? They looked at me and the cat and said, 'Give us the card;
we'll take care of it.' I was upset about the cat, but I was frustrated
by the way I was being treated. It was unnecessary."
SSNs and identity theft
Social Security numbers exist for the purpose of tracking earnings
and paying benefits, according to Cheezum. Although President Franklin
Roosevelt signed an order requiring federal agencies to use SSNs
for record-keeping systems, they were never meant to be used by
businesses as an identifier, but have taken on that role because
everyone has one.
But the snowballing problem of identity theft is spurring
some governments to limit the use of SSNs.
California is leading the way with its recently enacted
law barring businesses, health care providers and schools from:
- Publicly posting SSNs or requiring them for access
to products or services
- Printing of SSNs on cards required for accessing
products or services
- Requiring an individual to use his or her SSN to
access a Web site unless a password is also required to access
- Printing an individual's SSN on any materials that
are mailed to the individual.
The state of New York limits the use of SSNs in schools
and colleges. New York public and private schools cannot publicly
display SSNs. Many are opting to assign students identification
numbers. Arizona has passed similar legislation.
Foley says she hopes other states will follow suit
and be even more restrictive so that SSNs will eventually be used
only for a few selective purposes.
But, Foley says, until that happens, the first defense
against the fraudulent use of SSNs are the companies that issue
"Are they verifying that the person applying
for credit is the true consumer? Are they looking carefully for
red flags that might alert them to possible fraudulent use? If a
credit application has a last name spelled incorrectly or an address
different from the credit record, that should provoke someone into
calling the consumer."
Some privacy rights proponents say SSNs shouldn't
be used for obtaining credit. Does that mean a second number would
have to be issued for people seeking credit? Would that be any better
than the current system?
Perhaps California's newly enacted privacy law offers
a better option.
In addition to limiting the use of SSNs, the law allows
a consumer to place a "security freeze" on their credit
report. The freeze prohibits consumer credit reporting agencies
from releasing the consumer's credit report or any information from
it without express authorization from the consumer.
Time will tell if that provision works better than
the more common "alerts" that many people put on their
credit reports. With an "alert" a consumer is supposed
to be notified that someone is attempting to obtain credit in his
or her name. But stories abound of breakdowns in the system.
If someone uses your SSN to obtain credit and doesn't
pay their bills, you'll discover the fraud as soon as the bill collectors
come calling. But sometimes an identity thief actually pays their
bills and, in those instances, it could be a long time before you
discover the fraud.
The best way to find out if someone is fraudulently
using your SSN is to request copies of your credit reports at least
once a year. There are three main credit-reporting agencies. It's
a good idea to get a copy of your report from each agency so you
can check for discrepancies. You can order your credit report from:
If you suspect someone is fraudulently using your
Social Security number, contact call the Federal Trade Commission's
Identity Theft Hotline toll-free at 1-877-IDTHEFT (438-4338)or go
online to the FTC Web site and fill out an Identity
-- Updated: Dec. 8, 2004