When you should keep your Social Security number private
Let’s not fool ourselves. We’re disclosing our Social Security numbers left and right, and the massive Equifax breach is a wake-up call to sometimes say, ‘no.’
For the 143 million Equifax customers the credit reporting firm says may have had their personal information stolen, one of the first steps advised by Equifax was to enter a partial social security number. That process was riddled with problems, adding to consumers’ already deep sense of vulnerability.
But Equifax, not withstanding complaints about how it handled the breach, is justified in asking for the information, says Jean Chatzky, author of “Money Rules: The Simple Path to Lifelong Security” and host of the podcast, HerMoney.
Credit bureaus — Transunion, Experian, and Equifax — require this information, “to prove that you are you,” Chatzky said. They may also ask you to answer some other questions about places you’ve lived or loans you’ve had, or seek a partial number to help identify you.
It’s also legitimate to get asked for it in any dealings with the Internal Revenue Service—filing our taxes or making payroll, for instance, says Joe Valenti, director of consumer finance at the Center for American Progress, a think tank.
Insurance companies, credit card companies, and any company that sells products or services that require notification to the IRS (such as banks and car dealers) have a legitimate right to ask, too.
I know that well. Having recently bought a new house, I’ve been asked for that nine-digit number incessantly: By my bank, mortgage company, utility companies, and for a car loan.
What else? Federal law mandates that state tax authorities, departments of motor vehicles, entitlement programs like welfare, and other governmental agencies may legitimately request your Social Security number as a means to identify you. (But the Privacy Act of 1974 requires all government agencies to disclose whether submitting your number is required and how it will use the information.)
If you initiate a cash transaction totaling more than $10,000, you must provide your Social Security number so that the transaction can be reported to the IRS.
What doesn’t? According to Valenti from the Center for American Progress, doctors, hospitals, university and other schools have no legal basis to ask although they often do so because “it’s just convenient for them.”
With the increasing threat of identity theft in recent years, health care providers and institutions of higher education (like the military services) are trying to minimize the use of Social Security numbers or create new ways to identify us. Valenti points to different tools, notably the increased use of biometric data, like thumbprint or iris scans and facial recognition ID, which are becoming more accepted as alternative ways to prove we are who we say we are.
But not everywhere. I’ve ponied up my social security number to doctors, hospitals, various retailers. In fact, other than my phone number, it’s the only one I’ve committed to memory because I use it so frequently.
My social security card was issued in the 1960s and it says clearly: “Not for identification.” That’s because when these numbers were first introduced in the 1930s they were meant for one reason, and one reason only: To track our Social Security contributions to the giant government pool so we could rightfully claim benefits later in life.
That changed quickly: President Franklin D. Roosevelt established them as identification numbers by all federal agencies in 1943, and in 1962 the IRS adopted the Social Security number as its official taxpayer identification number. By the early 1980s the databases of the major credit bureaus contained our nine-digit numbers.
Fast forward to today: They’ve become a defacto national identification number, which makes them such a hot ticket for identity theft. Once a hacker’s got someone’s Social Security number, it’s easy to get more vital stats—like date of birth, address, email address, employer, bank loan numbers, and on and on. This is the superhighway to identity theft.
Robert Ellis Smith, the privacy expert and the publisher of Privacy Journal, says there are still plenty of more traditional ways to identify us: Full name. Date of birth. Address or former residence. Place of employment. “Two other factors help to create a viable match,” he explained.
The trick, he says, to withholding
your Social Security number is to know when it’s legally required and, when it’s discretionary, as well as how to phrase a refusal in a positive way. Don’t just say no, he cautions, but explain why you’re reluctant. “Because I’m concerned about my privacy, I choose to keep that information to myself,” he’ll say, followed up with, “What else can I do to complete the transaction?” Or ask, in your nice voice, “Why do you need my number? Is there a law that requires you to ask?”“Remember that you can decline to give your Social Security number,” says Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director at USPIRG, a public interest research group, “but private companies can also decline your business.”
What we can do:
· Don’t disclose your Social Security number without thinking twice, and asking yourself why it may be needed
· Know when the law requires disclosure and when it’s discretionary
· Ask to provide alternative means of identification to your Social Security number