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Hijacking your Social Security number
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If businesses are asking their customers to guard their personal identification to help reduce ID theft and fraud, but the businesses continue to use the Social Security numbers as their main source of identification, the businesses are doing exactly what they preach against by allowing access to these special numbers.

"It's a bomb in the town square; it needs to be defused," says Mark Durham of Identity Theft 911.

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Durham says the Social Security number is much too powerful. "Why make one piece of information so powerful that it can ruin your life if a thief decides to open credit cards, take out loans or assume your identity?"

Giving out numbers
According to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, identity theft is facilitated when a thief gets ahold of consumers' Social Security numbers, dates of birth and mothers' maiden names. That's easy to do, given how extensively the information is used by businesses, financial institutions, schools and government agencies.

"In a consumer environment driven by credit scores, most businesses consider your Social Security number -- not your name -- to be the ultimate validation of your identity. Your SSN is the key that opens every door, and it never changes. For an identity thief, that's a dream come true. Other information matters, but your SSN is the golden ticket," says Judd Rousseau, COO and director of fraud operations for Identity Theft 911.

The widespread use of the SSN as an identifier and authenticator has led to an increase in identity theft. Once a Social Security number is obtained fraudulently, it can be used as "breeder" information to obtain a loan, access bank accounts or create false identification documents, such as a driver's license.

With an estimated 10 million individuals being victimized by identity theft each year, preventing identity thieves from obtaining Social Security numbers is increasingly essential.

So, when must you give out your Social Security number?

Hillebrand says, "Unless it's related to checking your credit record or used for tax purposes, there is no need to collect your Social Security number as an ID number."

The USA Patriot Act has a customer identification program, which means you have to give your Social Security number in order to open a bank account or get a credit card.

"But once your credit line has been established, there is no reason for that business to keep using your Social Security number as an identifier," says Hillebrand.

That means cell-phone firms, utilities and credit card companies, and basically any other business or government institution that does not deal directly with personal tax records or credit history can use other means to recognize customers.

However, that means more work and less convenience for both the organization and the customer. According to Durham, that convenience might be why both business and government institutions are unwilling to discontinue using your Social Security number as a skeleton key.

Effective legislation
Numerous states have passed identity-theft and security-breach notification laws that highlight the need to stop identifying a person by his or her Social Security number and issue other means of identification.

Next: Social Security number protections: not what they seem
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Guard your Social Security number
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