How to safeguard your social security number

In articles about how to prevent identity theft, I've often read that one should never give out his or her social security number (SSN) unless absolutely necessary. That sounds like good common sense. But I recently found myself asking, in what situations is it actually necessary?

I've mentioned that my husband and I own land on which we are starting to build a home. The land is owner-financed, and we've had a great relationship with the sellers (who are also our future neighbors) for the past three years. Last week I received a message that they needed our SSNs. The full story wasn't clear, but it seemed they had a new CPA who said she needed our numbers to complete their taxes. This immediately set off red flags for me. This isn't to say I distrust the sellers. They are a lovely retired couple — the kind of people that invite you in for coffee when you drop off the monthly payment. But I didn't know this CPA, why she needed our SSNs when they've never been needed before, and what precautions she would take to safeguard them. So I decided to dig a little deeper. Do you have to provide your SSN because it's requested, and if not, how do you know which situations are optional?

Social Security Numbers: Why They Matter

Someone illegally using your number can access personal information and apply for and use credit in your name, creating a financial mess that you're left to sort out. Creditors can start calling, and you might be turned down for loans.

According to the 2010 Identity Fraud Survey Report, last year more than 11 million people in the U.S. were victims of identity fraud — at a total cost of $54 billion. The good news is that most victims didn't have any out-of-pocket requests, and those who did paid an average of $373. But the average time the victims had to spend to resolve the situation was 21 hours. Yuck.

It's important that you safeguard your number, taking the following precautions:

  • Keep your social security card in a secure place, which does not include keeping it in your wallet.
  • Consider your number confidential. When writing a check, firmly deny requests to write your SSN on the check. If an entity uses your SSN as your account number, request that it be changed.
  • Don't respond to e-mail requests for your SSN, even if they seem to be from a legitimate company with which you do business. Same goes for unsolicited phone calls.
  • If an online company requires your SSN, such as for an insurance quote, make sure the server is secure and the company is reputable.
  • Request your free credit reports each year to ensure no unusual credit lines appear.

When Your SSN is Required

In certain situations, you'll have to provide your SSN, such as the following:

  • When you start a new job, your employer will request your number. Your name and number must be accurate in your employer's payroll records and W-2 so that Social Security can credit your earnings.
  • Your financial institutions need your number for tax reporting purposes.
  • Some government agencies, such as motor vehicle departments, can require your number. All agencies, from local to federal, must disclose whether your SSN is required or optional, how it will be used, and under what authority it's being requested.

When It's Requested, But Not Required

Any business can request your SSN, and there aren't many restrictions on what the business can do with it. Information resellers, consumer reporting agencies, and some health care organizations obtain SSNs and use them in a variety of ways. But when it's not required by law, you can refuse to provide it (the flip side is that the business also can refuse to do business with you). If a business requests your number, ask the following questions:

  • Why is my SSN needed?
  • How will it be used?
  • Is it required by law (if so, state the law or regulation)?
  • What security measures does your company take with customer SSNs?
  • What happens if I refuse to provide it?

You also can ask to speak with a manager or supervisor to explain your concern about identity theft, and ask that they accept another identifier in place of your SSN. If you still can't persuade them and don't feel comfortable giving out your number, be willing to walk away and find another company with which to do business.

In our case, the sellers said they no longer needed our SSNs because it was only required if they filed their taxes online, and they decided not to do so. I don't suspect anything fraudulent in our situation, but even so, it's prudent to keep your SSN confidential, even if you have to be a pain in the neck about it. A request for your SSN doesn't mean it's a requirement.

More about...Administration

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Rob
Rob
10 years ago

Good tip. I probably need to be more aware of when someone asks me for my SSN than I am. Usually I have just assumed it was required. I never thought to ask if it was optional.

everyday tips
everyday tips
10 years ago

I just wondered this the other day. Ironically, I think I was trying to get access to my free credit report online or something like that, and the form requested my social security number. Whatever it was, I backed out when I saw my social security number was required, even though it may have been perfectly legitimate.

PMT
PMT
10 years ago

The thing about an SSN is that you no longer need all of it. How many places ask for the last 4 to verify your identity? Plus since SSN currently are a pattern there are people accurately generating SSNs with very little effort. You need to protect more than just your SSN but other personal info as well. With Facebook, MySpace, Linkin and other social networks personal info protection has gone out the window as people post anytyhing and everything. Bottom line is that you need to be careful giving out any part of your SSN as well as any… Read more »

TosaJen
TosaJen
10 years ago

When I was in college, my ID number was . . . my SSN! Didn’t mean anything to me at the time. When DH was in college (in his late 30s), his ID number was . . . his SSN! We were appalled, and he refused to get a student ID until they changed his ID to something else. And he had to fight for it, because the (kid) student intern in the registrar’s office didn’t get why we cared about it. 😉 We’re also very cautious, and I have regularly refused to hand it out unless there was a… Read more »

Chickybeth
Chickybeth
10 years ago

If you have federal student loans, your account number is always your SSN and can’t be changed. They don’t mail you items with the whole number on it, but you have to use it to login to their website.

You should check your credit files often even if you haven’t given out your SSN because companies do not need to know it to put information in your file.

Dan
Dan
10 years ago

My doctor’s administrative assistant asked for my SSN to confirm my insurance. Do I need to give it? Is something else sufficient?

Thank you!

Sincerely,

Dan

Kate
Kate
10 years ago

@ dan
A lot of medical insurance companies use you SSN as your ID number.

Suzanne
Suzanne
10 years ago

Back in the day, most people had their SSN printed on their checks. Of course that was back when checks were the primary mode of payment. It’s a good question, though, that some have raised: do businesses ever “need” to know that info? In my doctor’s office, I just give them my insurance card and have never been required to provide my SSN (at least to my memory).

April
April
10 years ago

@TosaJen–When I started college, we were asked to write our SSNs on tests and papers. By my junior year, we were told that work with an SSN on it would not be accepted! There was an incident where hundreds of student SSNs were stolen. @Dan–Great question! I did some digging, and this article might help answer your question: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12137393/ns/business-consumer_news/. Short answer–if it’s a simple doctor’s visit with only one insurance company involved, your insurance ID should be enough. Many insurance companies no longer use your SSN as an ID. If you refuse to give it, you might need to be… Read more »

Kathy A.
Kathy A.
10 years ago

When I owned a business, I frequently received W9 forms (request for taxpayer ID) from people who did not need my taxpayer ID (SSN for an individual, FEIN for a corp). But the form itself says there is a penalty for not providing the number when requested, and makes no mention of avoiding the penalty if the request was unneccesary. Argh.

grace
grace
10 years ago

I had “don’t give out your SSN” drilled into me at a very young age. I was very confused and disgruntled when I tried to sign up for Comcast and the helpful online customer service rep refused to let me do it unless I gave them my SSN. I told him (her?) that I didn’t understand why my SSN was required so that I could have ESPN and HGTV. He was very unhelpful and allowed for no alternative. Luckily (I guess?) one of my roommates was less concerned and she took care of it. Verizon also requires it, I think.… Read more »

Nunzio X
Nunzio X
10 years ago

Here’s something I’ve done:

I’ve gone through my filing cabinet and searched all the paperwork for my SS#. Then I take an Xacto knife and cut my number out of the form, making certain to destroy the cut-out bits afterward.

Reason: anyone in your home can steal your identity easily just by stealing certain paperwork from your (probably unlocked) filing cabinet. If I was a burglar, I’d go right for the filing cabinet and forget the jewelry and electronics—identity theft is so much more lucrative.

Kathy B
Kathy B
10 years ago

@ Dan – I used to work for a doctor in a small office. We required the patient’s SSN. When a patient refused, then the office manager explained the policy, insurance requirements etc., and that if they did not provide their SSN then they would not be seen by the doctor. Some would give in and provide that SSN, others did not. I hear tell that they now require not only the patients SSN, they are also requiring a credit card number to charge when their insurance is slow paying. Personally, I do not think this is legal, however, knowing… Read more »

Kevin M
Kevin M
10 years ago

I’m guessing they needed your SSN for seller-financed mortgage interest. They report it as income and the IRS wants to match it with the deduction you are taking on your tax return.

Similar to a bank reporting your mortgage interest on a Form 1098.

Tami
Tami
10 years ago

I’ve found that SSN is always asked for on new patient forms at doctor’s offices. Why would they need it?

Ask Questions!
Ask Questions!
1 year ago
Reply to  Tami

They don’t really need it. If you ask they will tell you that it is for your own protection so no one can claim is you using the medical insurance and for their protection in case the insurance company decides to claim it wasn’t really you who received medical service. It is a bunch of bs. What bugs me is that usually the moron taking your SSN is likely a person with zero money because they spend it on croch piercings and would have no problem taking your info and selling it for 10 bucks to people who have no… Read more »

Bridgette
Bridgette
10 years ago

I’d like to see a post on what lifelock or other companies like that do – and how to do what they do on your own. I’ve heard that they basically call someone (not sure who – credit agencies, etc) and put a hold on your account unless they call you at a certain number. I am not sure how it works – but if someone could explain, that would be good.

Steve
Steve
10 years ago

When I was in the military, our SSNs were used as our ID numbers. For instance it was part of the address used to send me a letter – it had to be written right on the front of an envelope and put in the mail system (and, I had to give it to anyone I wanted to get a letter from.) I have also been handed a sheet of paper with the SSNs of every person in my unit, just to perform some trivial administration task. I think the cat is out of the bag SSN wise. What we… Read more »

BK
BK
10 years ago

Even for an online insurance quote, I wouldn’t offer my SSN. I’m an insurance agent and we don’t need it/ask it until the actual application.

We have no need for it if you aren’t purchasing and frankly, I don’t want any more of that information under my responsibility than required.

elaine
elaine
10 years ago

People’s credit reports are tied to their SS#s. Creditors ask for them so they can run a credit check before granting credit. If one asks that credit be extended (including doctors who are collecting from insurance companies and folks who are carrying one’s mortgage), then it’s a resonable request. I have written to my Congresspeople to ask that Medicare Cards use a number OTHER THAN the SS#. Since it’s a primary health insurer, one really needs to carry it with him/her. Those of us over 65 avoid carrying their SS#s at some risk. I’ve memorized mine, but of course that… Read more »

Chris
Chris
10 years ago

I once worked as a customer service rep for a third-party company that provided benefit services for companys’ employees (tuition reimbursement, FSA reimbursement, etc.). We did this for several different companies. Some companies’ data files were more updated than others. Some companies provided SSNs as part of their feed. We’d get a call and we’d ask for SSN (as we were trained). Some would balk. So we’d ask for first and last name and state of residence. If necessary, verify city of residence, then their record would come up, including their SSN.

sandi_k
sandi_k
10 years ago

@Dan-

In recent years, with new doctors and dentists, I refuse to provide my entire SSN for their office.

Instead, I type XXX-XX-#### (with # = last 4 digits of my SSN). I have NEVER had an issue with that format.

My feeling is that they have my Group Insurance #, & they have my patient ID # – that’s plenty to get them paid. And if there were ever an issue, they could report to the credit bureaus using my full name and address.

Anne
Anne
10 years ago

I write medical billing software, and I can tell you that at least 90% of insurance companies do require a SS# in addition to policy#. This is to avoid fraud, etc. Not knowing in advance what your insurance will require, or what insurance changes you might have in the future, I think that practically every doctor’s office requires it. The only thing you could do would be to pay up front in cash, and then bill the insurance company yourself using your receipt. This will get very complicated with contractual allowances, etc., since you will have almost certainly paid the… Read more »

Dan
Dan
10 years ago

Thanks again for all of the advice!

Sincerely,

Dan

Mike
Mike
10 years ago

When I applied to grad school, it was listed as optional on the application. However, I found out that admissions understood it to only be optional for non-US citizens. When I received my stipend, they processed like a foreigner (extremely high tax rates, including state taxes I didn’t owe).

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

I understand that the LifeLock guy had his identity stolen. Well, he was really kind of asking for it, wasn’t he?? I live in a fairly privacy-conscious area of West L.A. and I don’t get requests for SSN often. In California, insurers can’t use it as an ID number and it doesn’t appear on driver’s licenses. Wondering if there is a state-by-state breakdown of businesses/agencies that may legitimately require the SSN? Seems like that would be good to know. Obviously, annualcreditreport.com can and does, also the IRS, etc.; but who else? I’ve had to provide it to a prospective landlord,… Read more »

Carrie
Carrie
10 years ago

If you are freelancing or self-employed, it’s a very good idea to get an Employer Identification Number (EIN). Financial institutions accept them in place of your SSN. They are free to obtain at IRS.gov.

Amanda
Amanda
10 years ago

Kevin #14 is correct. In this situation the CPA needed your #. I’m a tax accountant. =)

ricki
ricki
10 years ago

When my children were in school ( last one graduated in may.. yay ) The school would ask me for their SSN I never gave it to them but I always wondered why they needed it. When I asked the school why they needed it they would say its for the “records” whatever that means.

Scott M
Scott M
10 years ago

Utility companies (telephone, gas, electric, cable) use the SS# for debt collection. This is because the SS# is the only single id that is unique throughout the USA. Once you sign up for a service with your SS#, you can’t escape payment if you ever want to use that service again. If you don’t pay your cable/electric/gas bill when you move from one house, you can’t sign up for new service with the same company at your new address, unless you pay your outstanding bill. How do they know it’s you? From the SS# you provided. I know of families… Read more »

Janet
Janet
7 years ago
Reply to  Scott M

“Utility companies (telephone, gas, electric, cable) use the SS# for debt collection.” I have a good credit rating and have never stiffed a provider but I still was uncomfortable giving the gas/electric company my SS# to sign up for services at my new residence. I formed a corporation and gave them the FEIN# instead. They bitched and groused about it but relented when I told them I’d be willing to pay a deposit to get services. The gas company asked me how many people would be living at my residence. I asked why she needed to know this. Her reply… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
10 years ago

There’s a lot I could say about identity theft based on my own experience, which is not so much with identity theft itself, but with computer security based on my career building software that needs to be secure. The most overwhelming thing to recognize is that you almost certainly do not understand these threats as well as you think you do. Many of these threats are far over-estimated. Some are under-estimated. The things that you think make you “safe” may or may not have any effect on your actual safety. Things you’ve never considered often do. As far as your… Read more »

Bob DDS
Bob DDS
10 years ago

Don’t get too crazy about SSN requests! Many health insurance companies still use SSN as their ID number. Your doctor or dentist cannot submit a claim without it, or even determine if you are covered. One recent patient refused to provide her SSN. We told her fine, you pay the Metlife rate for the service and you can input your SSN and send in the form. Patient did not want to be out the money. So, how did she expect us to be paid? We told the patient that we were not going to see her for free.

TosaJen
TosaJen
10 years ago

Hey Tyler — this is one of my favorites of your comments. Thanks for the info.

Scott M
Scott M
10 years ago

Ricki, They probably just wanted to be able to uniqely identify your child if asked fro records. It’s a lot easier to pull transcripts, school records, school medical records, etc, if you have one definitive number assigned to a single student. Sure you could use some ‘school ID number’. But once you leave that school district, are you going to remember it? Then, are you sure that your child is the only child with your name in the school that year? What if the name is misspelled during a transcript request? And multiply those issues by all the records requests… Read more »

Funny about Money
Funny about Money
10 years ago

Good post. Great comment from Tyler. Any chance J.D. and crew could persuade Tyler to write a post on the misconceptions around this issue? I’ve also given up on refusing to give my SSN to doctors’ offices — they now almost universally refuse to treat you unless you cough up the number. Once I gave an ophthamologist a fake number (since I had to pay out of pocket for a routine exam anyway, there was no reason for them to have the real number). Despite the fact that I paid in cash, the did find out the number was fake… Read more »

Sheila
Sheila
10 years ago

I don’t mind so much giving the # to people who are inputting it into a computer, but when it’s on a paper copy, that’s what bothers me. What happens to that paper? I was at an optometrist’s office, and saw the name, birthdate and SSN of a patient whose records were on the reception desk. The receptionist stepped away and left all that information accessible to anyone coming up to the desk. Also, there was an instance of a mortgage loan business leaving boxes of records at the recycling center. While I’m glad they recycle, their customers would have… Read more »

Bob
Bob
10 years ago

When asked for my SSN, I routinely give a fake number, usually the correct first two segments followed by 0000. This avoids an argument, (almost) uniquely identifies me and has never been questioned.

Are there likely to be any problems with this?

Y2K
Y2K
10 years ago

I appreciate Tyler’s comment, and there is a lot of good information, but I disagree with some of his conclusions. Whoever is stealing your identity does not care about more than using your identity to obtain money. Usually, that involves borrowing money or buying and paying on some form of credit. It also usually involves not paying for it. If they intended to pay, they would use their own credit; they would not be stealing identities. Once that happens, your loss may be a day and about $300, perhaps, but your credit score will be shot. Just because you put… Read more »

david/MoneyCrashers
david/MoneyCrashers
10 years ago

Great stuff

You would think that most of it is obvious, but not really.

Its probably the most valuable piece of info we have about ourselves, and should be protected with that in mind.

MegW
MegW
10 years ago

I’m currently in the military and your SSN is still your ID number, printed on your ID card and everything. And if you’re married and/or have kids, they have to know your SSN in order to get medical treatment on base. You use it for far too much stuff, like setting up computer accounts, getting a prescription filled (even off base), pay issues, everything. Though luckily most of the time you can just give them the last 4 as verification. But still, it’s unnerving when I stop to think how easily it would be for someone INSIDE the system to… Read more »

Paul
Paul
10 years ago

If you want to help someone steal your identity, give out your Social Security number. If you want to help someone dip into your bank account, give out your Social Security number. Face it, we live in a country full of bureaucratic nitwits and busybodies. This used to be the country of the free and the brave. The bureaucrats want a country full of chickens with everyone marching in lockstep. Stand up for your rights. Stand up for your convictions. Do not cooperate with those who are paving paradise, turning it into a parking lot, putting trees into a tree… Read more »

Mortgage Lender
Mortgage Lender
10 years ago

Long post, somewhat unfocused but here’s how the mortgage industry uses an SSN and much more. Should be useful for those who have or aspire to own a home. I work for a large mortgage lender. We primarily do business that is brought to us from mortgage brokers. Mortgage brokers find borrowers and hopefully help them get the best deal while taking a reasonable commission. Once you’ve decided to work with a broker they will take the standard mortgage application. If you’ve ever filled out a mortgage application you know that your required to disclose everything about yourself. After the… Read more »

Rob
Rob
10 years ago

@ Bridgette I think this is what you are looking for. Basically you freeze your credit so no one can open new credit accounts. If you ever need to open it up you would have to pay a fee, around $30 to each of the three reporting agencies. But if you are not planning on opening any new credit within the next few years it is probably worth it.

http://clarkhoward.com/topics/credit_freeze_states.html

Chickybeth
Chickybeth
10 years ago

@ Ricki & Scott: The school has to give the government the SSN of every child who attends the school to receive funding. Illegal immigrants who send their children to school here have to “borrow” a SSN from someone else to get them in, but it is supposed to make it so only US citizens are attending US schools. Knowing how easy it is for anyone to see and use your SSN, I guess I’m not that worried about giving it out. I check my credit reports vigorously for anything suspicious,but I know that if someone really wanted to take… Read more »

honeybee
honeybee
10 years ago

Another great post, thanks April.

Paula
Paula
10 years ago

As far as Comcast wanting your SS# (which I find ridiculous), just give them a fake number. They will never know. Then write the fake number that you gave Comcast down someplace, so you can regurgitate it to them when you speak to them over the phone and customer service asks for it.

EmmBee
EmmBee
10 years ago

The biggest issue I am having is that I am unemployed, and a lot of employers have their job applications online where they ask for a SSN. I’ve tried leaving it blank, but I usually get an error message that it is required, so I have to fill in something to complete the application. I could put in something obviously fake, like 999-99-9999, but I’m worried the employer will not consider me because they’ll think that’s suspicious. On the other hand I could just use a random fake number, which would probably work at the start, but then at the… Read more »

Kim
Kim
10 years ago

@EmmBee – I put “upon hire” in the SSN filed whenever possible, but I can see where you are coming from. It won’t usually work with online applications. I think the 999-99-9999 would be better in your scenario, as it is pretty obvious that it’s not real–if you made one up, they could think you’re trying to scam them.

mike
mike
9 years ago

Once i had an issue with the local bloodbank asking/requiring my SSN. i balked. The woman at the ‘processing table’ didn’t like that someone would refuse her request and proceeded to tell me that i would NOT be allowed to donate blood without the number being divulged. i quickly pointed out that my SSN was issued by a FEDERAL agency, and that without a damn-good reason or some written legal authority, a county volunteer agency – such as a bloodbank – wasn’t quite at the same level. “Besides,” i told her “YOU’RE agency is asking ME to do THEM a… Read more »

John
John
9 years ago

I have a concern. We are suppose to safeguard our identity by not carrying our social security cards in our wallet with other ID’s and such. That is common sense. I noticed my 16 year old son had his social security card in his wallet and I told him that he should not do that and explained why. He took out his social security card and showed me on the card where it said that you should carry your card with you in your wallet. I was quite surprised by this. It makes no sense to me why they print… Read more »

Larry
Larry
9 years ago

When a company (like the cable company) wants my SSN, I give them a fake one. Example: I simply increase each number in my real SSN by one digit. That way I always know the fake SSN I gave them. So if my real SSN starts out 315, I tell them its 426. Story: We have random drug screens at work. When I got picked I called the office to find a location where I could got for the test, since I work at a remote location. The office told me the clinic would track my drug screen by my… Read more »

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