Social Security numbers were never intended to be a “one size fits all” primary ID. In many ways, however, that’s exactly what has happened. Identity theft thrives in the U.S. in part because Americans feel forced to use their SSN for so many types of interactions. Ultimately it falls on individuals to protect their own number.
Not everyone who requests your SSN actually needs it. Generally speaking, if an entity reports information about you to the Internal Revenue Service you probably have to supply your Social Security number to that entity. This includes your employer, banks/lenders, U.S. Treasury (savings bonds), welfare department and workers’ compensation. Although other institutions and businesses have the right to ask for your number, they don’t need it. Unfortunately, if they ask and you say no, they can refuse to provide services to you or put conditions on the service – such as a deposit or additional fees.
Here are 10 things you can do to protect your SSN and your employees:
- Offer an Alternative – If a business or organization asks for your Social Security number, offer your driver’s license number instead. Other alternative forms of ID include a passport, proof of current and previous address (bills) or even a student ID from a college or university.
- Ask Questions – If the business insists, ask questions. You have a right to know why it’s necessary to provide your SSN and how it will be handled.
- Leave Your Card at Home – Don’t carry your card around with you in your wallet or purse. Don’t enter it into your phone, laptop or other device. It would be rare for you to need your card. Typically, reciting the number is all that’s required. Keep the number in your head and the card locked up at home.
- Shred Documents – Discarded mail and documents are a magnet for identity thieves. Don’t just throw out papers that contain personal details such as your Social Security number. Get a shredder at a discount or office supply store and use it on a regular basis. While you’re at it, don’t leave mail in an outside mailbox for long periods. Stealing mail before you get it is another way thieves can make off with your identity.
- Don’t Use it as a Password – In addition to not keeping the entire number on an electronic device, don’t use the whole number – or part of it – as a password. The password file can be stolen and decrypted, or someone can just watch you type it in from over your shoulder.
- Don’t Broadcast – Never type your Social Security number into an email or instant message and send it. The majority of email messages can be intercepted and read in transmission. Also, don’t leave a voice mail that includes your SSN. If you need to contact someone and give them your number, it’s best to do it in person. The second best way is to reach them on the phone and do it “live.”
- Don’t Give It Out – You should never provide your SSN to someone you don’t know who calls you on the phone and requests it. This same warning applies to unsolicited emails and any forms you fill out on the Internet. In general, don’t give your SSN to anyone unless you are absolutely certain he or she has a reason and a right to have it.
- Monitor Everything – Keep close tabs on your bank and credit card balances. This is one way to make sure your SSN and identity have not been compromised. Many banks let you sign up for account alerts. They will send you text alerts or call you if transactions exceed a certain amount or if someone tries to use your Social Security number to access your account.
- Use an Identity Protection Service – You can register with (and pay for) an identity protection service such as LifeLock, IdentityForce or Identity Guard. Such services provide identity insurance for a fee that typically starts around $10 per month. Banks and credit unions also have packages they sell to customers, as do major credit rating agencies such as Experian and TransUnion.
- Protect Your Children – While you are protecting your own Social Security number, make sure you are equally watchful about your children’s numbers. This is most often an issue at the doctor’s office. Fortunately, most medical facilities are more than happy to use an insurance account number instead of your SSN or your child’s.