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Guard your Social Security number

Be careful about giving out your SSN--it's key to stealing your identity

Schools, phone companies, utilities, health clubs, insurance companies, video stores -- just about everybody wants your SSN. Some of the more prevalent uses are to get your credit rating and determine whether you pay your bills, and to keep track of you through name and address changes.

But companies also use your number to develop marketing lists, which they can sell to other companies. A list with the numbers is more valuable than one without.

Why should you care who sees your Social Security number? The more people who see it, the more susceptible you are to identity theft, where you are victimized by someone fraudulently using your name and credit report to steal money.

"I've seen accounts opened with wrong names and different addresses. As long as there's an SSN, that's all some of them care about," says Linda Foley of the San Diego-based Identity Theft Research Center.

Who has the right to ask for your digits?

While any business or agency can ask for your number, few can actually demand it -- motor vehicle departments, tax departments and welfare departments, for example. Also, SSNs are required for transactions involving taxes, so that means banks, brokerages, employers, and the like also have a legitimate need for your SSN.

Most other businesses have no legal right to demand your number.

"There is no law prohibiting a business from asking for your Social Security number, but people don't know they can say no," says Carolyn Cheezum of the Social Security Administration.

"We recommend that you ask if they'll accept an alternative piece of identification. If they don't, flat-out refuse to do business with them. Bear in mind that there's a possibility they'll refuse to provide whatever product or service you're seeking."

For example, you don’t need to give your SSN to your doctor.

In fact, chances are good that many companies that routinely ask for SSNs will do business with you even if they can't have your number.

SSNs and identity theft

Social Security numbers exist for the purpose of tracking earnings and paying benefits, according to Cheezum. Although President Franklin Roosevelt signed an order requiring federal agencies to use SSNs for record-keeping systems, they were never meant to be used by businesses as an identifier, but have taken on that role because everyone has one.

But the snowballing problem of identity theft is spurring some governments to limit the use of SSNs. California is leading the way with its recently enacted law barring businesses, health care providers and schools from:

  • Publicly posting SSNs or requiring them for access to products or services
  • Printing of SSNs on cards required for accessing products or services
  • Requiring an individual to use his or her SSN to access a Web site unless a password is also required to access the site.
  • Printing an individual's SSN on any materials that are mailed to the individual.
  • The state of New York limits the use of SSNs in schools and colleges. New York public and private schools cannot publicly display SSNs. Many are opting to assign students identification numbers. Arizona has passed similar legislation.

Foley says she hopes other states will follow suit and be even more restrictive so that SSNs will eventually be used only for a few selective purposes.

But, Foley says, until that happens, the first defense against the fraudulent use of SSNs are the companies that issue credit.

If you suspect someone is fraudulently using your Social Security number, contact the Social Security Administration's fraud hotline at (800) 269-0271 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern, or e-mail:


Category: Consumer Tips
Posted on March 28, 2004 at 07:16 PM | Permalink


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What amazes me is how someone can use an SSN with the wrong name and address.
This means they wouldn't need to find an SSN, simply make one up. It's not difficult, 3 numbers - 2 numbers - 4 numbers.
The SSA even have a table available on which ranges of numbers are valid.

Posted by: Phil at Aug 20, 2011 9:44:52 AM