Last July, Harrine Freeman was at a gas station when thieves busted her car window and stole her purse. They used her bank card to spend $3,000 from her checking account, but luckily Freeman was able to recoup her money and close her accounts before suffering further damage. Another thing the 40-year-old CEO and owner of Bethesda, Maryland-based personal finance company H.E. Freeman Enterprises says she was grateful for: “They didn’t get my Social Security number.” It wasn’t chance that kept Freeman’s Social Security number safe. “I don’t carry my card with me, and I rarely give the number out to anyone,” she says.
With 32% of identity theft victims reporting that their Social Security numbers were compromised, according to San Francisco-based firm Javelin Strategy & Research, it may seem logical to keep your number to yourself. But it’s not as easy these days when it’s commonplace to be asked for those nine digits by prospective employers, doctor’s offices, and even some service providers. The truth is, anyone can ask for your Social Security number, says Dorothy Clark, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Social Security Administration. It’s encouraged to ask the entity why the information is needed, and the answer should determine whether you provide it or not.
An Evolving Tracking System
The original purpose of the Social Security number was to keep track of Americans’ earnings for tax purposes and to monitor benefits paid under the Social Security system. However, the number is now also used as a form of identification. By law, there are some instances when you must give out your Social Security number. Those situations tend to fall into three categories, says Linda Foley, founder of the San Diego-based Identity Theft Resource Center.
You must give your number to:
Entities that provide you with income. This is so that the income can be reported for tax purposes. That could include employers, casino or lottery operators, and even pawnshops.
Companies that provide you with a line of credit. That could include your bank, a credit card issuer, or an automobile financing company.
Agencies or organizations that provide you with federal or state benefits. This could include your local Department
of Welfare or Department of Employment Services.
Other businesses and organizations have their own reasons for requesting the number, though you have the legal right to decline. Hospitals request it because “if you died while you were in the hospital, they’d need it for the death certificate,” says Foley. This may or may not work but Foley suggests saying, “My doctor has my Social Security number” or “My spouse is right here and can provide it if you need it.” Schools may request it to use as an identification number. Utility providers and retailers may ask for your number as a way to validate your identity or to locate you if you skip out on a bill. For these types of requests, it’s a matter of personal choice.
When someone requests your Social Security number, you should ask them why they need it, what will happen if you don’t provide it, and if there is an alternative form of identification you can use. If they insist on having it, and the request is not related to tax purposes, establishing credit, or receiving federal or state benefits, then you can refuse, but “you may have to do without the service of that entity,” says Clark. In other words, they may refuse to do business with you.
Sometimes the timing isn’t right for providing a Social Security number. For example, when applying for a job, some applicants are asked for their number even though they haven’t even been selected for a job interview. In those cases, it makes sense to say you’ll provide that information further along in the interview process.
Some businesses or agencies may only request the last four digits of your Social Security number, but giving out a partial number is no safer than giving out the whole thing. The first three digits of the number represent the geographic region you were in when you applied for the number. The second two digits represent a group number that is assigned for administrative purposes. The final four digits are the only part of the Social Security number that makes yours different from all others. “The last four numbers are like a pin,” says Foley. “Those are the most risky digits of the Social Security number.”
You can always suggest another form of identification if you’re uncomfortable giving your Social Security number to someone who’s not required by law to have it. Perhaps a driver’s license, account number, or passport will satisfy identification requirements. Even if you do decide to provide your Social Security number, make sure it’s in an environment in which you feel that the number is being protected. Avoid faxing it, e-mailing it, or disclosing it to someone who seems cavalier about handling the information. If you feel uncomfortable, ask if you can provide the number to someone else or at a later time. “If I don’t feel that the entity will protect my number, I will certainly not give it,” says Clark. —Tamara E. Holmes