Guard your nine-digit ID number

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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.

When it’s needed
In some situations, you may be legally required to provide your Social Security number to obtain a service or benefit.

Examples: Your Social Security number is required for tax reporting; in compliance with the Patriot Act, such as when you open a bank account; for employment reporting; to get an extension of credit; or to acquire a driver’s license, Stephens says. The driver’s license number should not be the same as your SSN.

Tip: Get the Department of Motor Vehicles to change your driver’s license number if you have an old license that uses your Social Security number as the driver’s license number.

“You’ll probably have to pay a fee for that, but it certainly is a good idea to do that. Of course, if you’re close to your time for a renewal, they will reissue it with a new number automatically,” says Stephens.