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4 tips to protect your Social Security number

9 very valuable digits
9 very valuable digits © Dmytro Mykhailov/

Your Social Security number is the key to your financial castle. Armed with those precious nine digits, identity thieves can rip off your good name and credit to set up new accounts and loans or rob your existing accounts.

High-tech schemes to steal your "Social" use deceptive phishing emails, spyware or keystroke software that copy your passwords for online banking or other accounts. Low-tech methods include stealing wallets and dumpster-diving for unshredded bank statements.

No matter how crooks get your number, the turmoil they will spin into your life could take you months and thousands of dollars to resolve. In 2010, 8.6 million U.S. households were touched by identity theft and lost $13.3 billion as a result, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey.

"Of any piece of personal information, the Social Security number is the most critical to safeguard," says Lisa Schifferle, an attorney in the Federal Trade Commission's Division of Privacy and Identity Protection. "It's the golden ticket to identity theft," she says, adding that government watchdogs field more complaints about identity theft than anything else.

Here are four things you must know to protect your Social Security number.

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Once they get their hands on your Social Security number, identity thieves can wreck your good name and credit. But many of us leave this crucial key to our financial house vulnerable.

Protecting your Social Security number means, first of all, understanding who needs to have it. This list includes employers, the IRS and lenders.

Then, realize that some businesses that may ask for your Social don't necessarily have to have it. Experts say landlords, medical offices and insurers don't really need it -- and you can say no. If they insist and threaten to deny you service, the Consumer Federation of America says offer to give your driver's license number instead.

Credit bureau TransUnion says a business can check your credit report without your Social. In any event, ask a lot of questions, starting with: Why do you want my number?



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