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Hijacking your Social Security number
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In California, college ID cards no longer contain the Social Security number of students. Instead they use a less-invasive number that proves identity. The same law goes for medical records and Medicare cards. It is illegal to have your Social Security number listed on your Medicare card. The law also requires companies to notify consumers if their personal information has been breached.

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Twenty-one states have security-breach laws, and some of those states also prohibit the use of Social Security numbers for identification purposes.

"Your SSN is unique to you, so unique that it gives complete access to everything known about you, which is pretty dangerous," says attorney Chris Hoofnagle, senior counsel to the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Hoofnagle and a fellow center member testified before Congress calling for a ban on Social Security numbers used as identifiers and asked that companies develop methods of identifying consumers that are not based on publicly available data or data easily bought from brokers. Any passwords chosen could be easily changed by the consumer if warranted.

Edmund Mierzwinski, National Association of State Public Interest Research Groups consumer program director, says that despite state laws protecting private information, Congress is trying to pass federal laws that would reduce using Social Security numbers for identification.

Mierzwinski says, "The Social Security number protections are not what they seem. The government established the use of Social Security numbers to regulate Medicare, Social Security benefits and taxes, but the government allows others to use the numbers without regulating how they are used."

Mierzwinski points to credit bureaus as the main offenders of Social Security number abuse.

"Credit bureaus are strictly regulated when they sell credit reports but are not strictly regulated when they sell your information, or header information, which includes your name, address, mother's maiden name and your Social Security. That information is sold on an unregulated basis.

"Government and business do not want consumers to have control over their financial DNA, but they also don't want to be held responsible if there is a security breach. The industry strategy is to establish weak breach laws that take away state laws," he says.

Mierzwinski and other consumer advocates want to see laws that benefit the consumer, not big business. "We would like to see an amendment that states neither businesses nor government can deny someone service if they choose not to give their Social Security number."

Hillebrand agrees. "You can't close down your Social Security number the way you can close down your bank account or credit card. There must be some kind of accountability and protection that gives consumers peace of mind."

The legacy of Social Security numbers
While consumers are looking for state and federal laws that would ensure that private information stays private, almost half of Americans carry their Social Security cards in a wallet or purse, according to the American Express ID Theft Quiz.

 
 
Next: Don't carry, don't share, don't give out ...
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 RESOURCES
Guard your Social Security number
Americans' top complaint: Identity theft
The growing problem of ID theft
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