When You Should, Shouldn't Give Out Your Social
Security Number
Karen J. Bannan

Some Legitimately Need It -- to Others, Learn to Say 'No'
Your Social Security number is one of the keys to your financial health. It's a
unique indentifier lenders use to assess your creditworthiness. It's also
exactly what a would-be thief needs to apply for a credit card, mortgage, car
loan or job in your name.
If you're like most Americans, it's also something you give out all too
frequently.
"As with so many procedures in the business world, your Social Security
number is something that many companies ask for, so no one really questions
it," says James Van Dyke, president of Javelin Strategy & Research, a
research firm that tracks financial services topics. "But giving out your Social
Security number is definitely a practice consumers should think twice about."
Case in point: A recent Javelin Strategy & Research report -- the 2009 ID
Fraud Survey -- found that, among identity theft victims, 38 percent said the
perpetrator had obtained their Social Security number and used it in the
crime. "It's certainly logical to say that you could eliminate 38 percent of
your risk of identity theft by limiting access to your Social Security number,"
says Van Dyke.

'Your Social Security Number, Please'

Still, saying it and doing it are two different things. Many of the forms you
encounter during the day -- at doctor's offices, at the dentist, at your child's
school -- ask for Social Security numbers. Retailers may ask for it, too, when
accepting a check for payment or before issuing check cashing privileges.
Potential employers also need it, and they may even want a copy of the
actual card, says Linda Foley, founder of the San Diego-based Identity Theft
Resource Center (ITRC). You'll also be asked for it at your local Department
of Motor Vehicles, car dealerships, pawnshops, drugstores -- even at the
airport, should you lose your luggage, she says. In fact, you may be surprised
at how far-reaching this practice is, says Foley.
"A few years ago, we were putting some of my mother's things into storage,
and they wanted her Social Security number to use as a passcode," she says.
"It's that prevalent."
Just because someone asks for it doesn't mean you have to comply, says
Michael J. Arata, the author of "Identity Theft For Dummies," especially
since there are only a handful of organizations that actually have a valid
need for it. For instance, anytime you're applying for credit -- for a new
credit card, a loan, new telephone or cellular service -- the creditor will need
your Social Security number to run a credit check. You'll also need to
provide it if you are applying for federal or local government benefits such as
Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, unemployment insurance or
disability. Another example: If you or your children receive services or aid at
the state or local level, such as free or reduced fee lunch or financial aid. The
local motor vehicle department, thanks to the USA PATRIOT Act, has the
legal right to ask for Social Security numbers, too. In addition, when you
complete a cash transaction totaling more than $10,000 you'll be required to
provide your number so that transaction can be reported to the Internal
Revenue Service, says ITRC's Foley.

YOUR SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER DECODED

The nine digits of your Social Security number are unique to you, right? Not
exactly, according to the Social Security Administration. In fact, many other
people may share two groupings exactly. Here's what each section means:
123-45-6789
Area number (shown in blue): Prior to 1972, Social Security cards were
issued from local offices. The numbers reflected the locations of those
offices. Today, although cards are issued from one office in Baltimore, the
area number still reflects geography since they are given out based on the
ZIP code of the requestor's mailing address.
Group number (shown in black): This number is set based on the month
and year you request your Social Security card. They are also based on
location. Specific areas are issued specific group numbers.
Serial Numbers (shown in red): These numbers -- 0001 through 9999 --
have nothing to do with geography or date requested. They are assigned
based on availability.      
Medical professionals have their own impetus, says the ITRC's Foley. "The
reason a doctor or a dentist asks for your Social Security number is that,
should you die while under his or her care, they are required to put your
Social Security number on the death certificate," says Foley.
Even so, fulfilling non-credit-related requests -- even medical-related
requests -- is purely optional, says L. Jean Camp, an associate professor at
Indiana University and the author of "Economics of Identity Theft." "The
problem is that you have the right to say that you're not going to give out
your Social Security number, but a business owner has the right to say he's
not going to do business with you," says Camp. "Most companies aren't
being malicious. They're just being cautious by giving themselves a way to
track you down if you don't pay a bill."
Gracefully Saying 'No'
One of the best ways to get out of giving your Social Security number to
someone is to simply overlook it on your paperwork, says Arata. You may
get by without a confrontation. If you're questioned, however, ITRC's Foley
suggests being proactive. "The most basic thing you can do is ask the
person or organization why they need it. One of the most powerful things
you can say is, 'Is there a law or requirement that I must provide it to you,
and can you tell me what it is?' You can also ask the person requesting your
Social what will happen if you don't disclose it," she says.
Often, as in the case of a school or a charitable organization, they simply
want it to use your number as a unique identifier. In that case, says Javelin
Strategy & Research's Van Dyke, you'll need to start negotiating again.
"Say, 'In order for me to become your customer, I really need you to find
an alternative recordkeeping method because I know giving out my Social
Security number places me at great risk.' When you say it like that you may
get better results," he says.
Even doctor or dentist offices should be willing to forgo your Social
Security number -- especially if you have health insurance. And if they
won't? Ask to give your information directly to the doctor and have him or
her input it into the system for you, says Van Dyke. ITRC's Foley says most
medical offices may also feel comfortable without it as long as they have an
emergency contact on file -- someone who knows your Social Security
number and could provide it in the event of death.
And what of the worst case scenario -- when you absolutely can't get out of
it, but you still don't feel comfortable? You can always make up a number,
says Camp, but if you do, make sure you write it down and don't
inadvertently steal someone else's identity. "If you go this route as a last
resort, make sure you put zeros in for the two middle numbers," she says.
"There are no Social Security numbers that have double zeros in that
section."
When Must You Provide Your Social Security Number?
Mandatory
Optional
Credit applications  

Cash transactions over $10,000

Military paperwork

The Department of Motor Vehicles
Doctor and dentist intake forms
   
Supermarkets

When applying for certain federal benefits        

Drugstores
  
Preschools
 
Airlines