As numbers go, it’s probably the most important one you’ll ever own. It’s not your birth date, your bank account number or even your credit card number. It’s your Social Security number, and it seems everyone wants it. But in this age of identity theft, you’re best off, in most cases, just saying no.
Your Social Security number is a unique identifier connected only to you. It’s so intricately linked with who you are that if someone else has access to it, they can virtually become you.
When to use your Social Security number
That’s why you should only use your number for dealings with financial institutions, employers and government agencies.
You must disclose the number when a government agency requests it. It is required for interactions with your state department of motor vehicles, welfare offices and anything involving the Internal Revenue Service.
Some government health plans, group health plans, workers compensation, insurance companies and credit card applications also require your number. Your number is even required to stop credit card offers from coming in your mail.
Any time any entity requests your Social Security number, it must provide a statement indicating whether the number is indeed mandatory along with how the number will be protected.
When to refuse sharing your Social Security number
Private entities may demand your Social Security number, but it’s generally in your best interest to refuse giving it to such parties.
Keep in mind that some businesses may refuse service to you if you refuse to give your number. And that is their right. Oftentimes, offering your driver’s license number is an acceptable compromise.
If you decide to provide your Social Security number to a private entity, be sure the company takes careful steps to protect it.
The best advice is to share your number only when absolutely mandatory and the agency requesting it is legitimate. If you have any doubt, don’t share your number.
How to protect your Social Security number
Many people, despite their best intentions to protect their Social Security number, unknowingly let it slip into the hands of identity thieves or find it has been compromised in a data breach. To help prevent this from happening to you, follow these tips:
- Never give your number over the internet unless you know the site to be legitimate and you see the padlock symbol in the URL window.
- Never give your number in response to an e-mail. Often these are phishing scams, designed to lead users to what they think is a legitimate web site but instead is a site run by identity thieves.
- Never provide your Social Security number to someone who has called you by telephone. If it is your bank or another entity with which you conduct business, hang up and call them back at their publicly listed or posted telephone number.
- Never write your Social Security number on a check, business card, address label or any other paper that has other identifying information about you. Your number combined with your name, birth date or any other personal data makes a thief’s job much easier.
- Don’t carry your Social Security card or any other information that has your number.
- Keep your number in a safe place. If you haven’t memorized it and think you’ll need it, break it into two or three sets of numbers written in different places. Should others come upon the numbers, they won’t know what they mean.
To monitor potential misuse of your number, be sure to take advantage of free credit reports. Everyone is entitled to a free credit report once a year from each of the credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax, TransUnion). Spread that out, so you can review a report every four months throughout the year. You can also visit annualcreditreport.com for a free credit report.
If you find anything amiss on your credit report, contact the creditors directly to address what you see.
If you detect evidence of fraudulent activity, contact the police. It’s theft, and it’s a crime. Also contact the credit bureaus and let them know someone else is using your number. Ask them to issue a fraud alert that will keep thieves from accessing more of your good credit. Be sure to notify the IRS, an agency that will always need your Social Security number, and report the crime to the Internet Crime Complaint Center.
At all times, be cautious with your Social Security number. Recognize how valuable it is, don’t use it frivolously, and do whatever you can to protect it.
Information provided by consumer law attorney Joe Veenstra at Johns, Flaherty & Collins. For a consumer law attorney in La Crosse, call him at 608-784-5678.