Identity Theft: Social Security Numbers

Modern use of the Social Security number as a unique identifier has been a windfall for identity thieves. When the numbers were first issued in 1935, Americans were told that their use would be limited to Social Security issues. Today, the Social Security number is one of the most frequently used record-keeping numbers in the United States. It is unique and universal, but no longer secure. Its widespread exposure and easy availability have produced a thriving industry for identity crooks. Not surprisingly, the ultimate responsibility for cleaning up after a heist rests with the cardholder.

At Work

If your employer needs your Social Security number – which, for tax purposes, they likely do – they must provide a Privacy Act notice. Do not disclose your Social Security number to potential employers until after they have offered you a job. And if they need to see your Social Security card, take it out of its hiding place, bring it to work, and promptly return it to its cubby. Do not carry it around in your wallet.

At School

At colleges and universities that use Social Security numbers as student ID numbers, some faculty and students are rightly worried about sensitive data falling prey to identity thieves. When students apply to the school, ask for financial aid (FAFSA), request to live on campus, or have their grades posted by their SSN, each department’s computer system is left wide open to its administrators, users, scamsters, and hackers to plunder the caches of personal data. (Major data heists have occurred at such campuses as Tufts, Berkeley, University of Notre Dame, Cornell, Kent State, and Boston College.) Many colleges allow students to petition for a new number. The better students are taking advantage.

At the Doctor’s Office

Although many healthcare providers and insurers use Social Security numbers to identify patients, it is probably not required on your medical records. Work with your human resources department or the health plan’s administrators to find out how you can minimize exposure of your personal information. If your health insurer asks for SSN, request that they assign another number as a patient identifier.

At the DMV

If your state DMV uses Social Security numbers as identifiers, they are in violation of a 2004 federal law which ordered states to stop putting these numbers on new or renewal driver's licenses, vehicle registrations, and identification cards. If your license still uses the number, drop by your state agency to be assigned another ID number.

On a Deed of Trust

You may ask to have your Social Security number omitted from a deed of trust, since it will be on other, related documents that are not public records. Public records – and many can be obtained online – represent yet another fertile field for the identity criminal.

On the Internet

If you can avoid it, never give your Social Security number over the Internet. Especially when someone unknown to you asks you for it. Never reply to emails asking for personal information. Even with its scrambled, encrypted, secure sites, the Internet was not designed for security. It was intended to be a non-discriminating means of speedy communication. As it has developed into a ubiquitous convenience, issues of security, user authentication, and the like have been largely left to the senders and receivers. Remember, you do not have to worry about information you keep to yourself.

When it comes to your Social Security number, the bottom line is common sense: Guard yours carefully – your financial well-being is in the balance.