Think about how often you’re asked to provide your Social Security number. Healthcare providers, potential employers, creditors, banks, insurance companies, and, of course, the IRS –businesses and agencies from all over routinely want this information. They do so because those nine digits are yours alone and thus provide a powerful form of identification.
With so many requests, it’s no wonder that most Americans know their Social Security number by heart. But giving it out to so many people with such frequency puts you at risk of joining the more than 17 million Americans who were victims of identity theft in 2014 alone. How do you protect yourself?
Treat your Social Security number as what it is: precious information. Think of yourself as a spy agency, and your Social as a valuable piece of intel. If a scam artist gets ahold of your number, they are well on their way to stealing your identity.
There are lots of phishing scams in which you receive a very official-looking email supposedly from your bank. That bogus mail will ask you to enter your SS number in order to access your bank account. Some identity thieves will even ask you to provide the number over the phone. Don’t fall for it.
Never give your Social Security number to anyone unless you are certain of who they are, and that they have a legitimate need for your number. And even then, don’t give it out unless you can enter it into a form yourself. Additionally, shred any documents you discard that list your number. Do not carry your Social Security card or number with you.
Use a strong password on all of your accounts and devices, so that your Social Security number and other personally identifiable information (PII) cannot be easily hacked. Two-step verification, which requires the entry of your password followed by a one-time code sent to your mobile phone, offers even more protection.
Who can require your number?
Some entities really do need access to your Social Security number. Banks, for instance, need it to open an account. You must provide it to your state’s department of revenue and the IRS when filing tax documents or payments. Employers need it to make sure that your tax withholdings get credited to the correct account, while government agencies require it to provide benefits, including unemployment, Medicaid, Medicare, and, of course, Social Security. And thanks to the USA PATRIOT Act, your state’s department of motor vehicles also has a legitimate need to know your number.
Beyond those entities discussed above – which can legally require your Social Security number – there are a host of other people, businesses, and agencies who regularly ask for it. For example, schools, insurers, and utility companies frequently request your number. Potential employers and landlords may ask for it so that they can perform background checks; similarly, creditors want it so they can check your credit rating.
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The thing to remember is that anyone can ask you for your Social Security number, but it is up to you to choose to give it. If you refuse, you may be denied something you are seeking, such as a job or an apartment, but you can’t be forced to divulge your number. Healthcare providers routinely ask for it, but you are not required by law to provide it to them.
How to avoid giving your number out
Even if you’re diligent about safeguarding your Social Security number, you should check your financial accounts regularly and sign up for alerts that inform you of changes or withdrawals. You should also check your credit report at least once a year, verifying that all the accounts it lists are ones you opened. Use AnnualCreditReport.com, which is authorized by the federal government to provide you with a free annual credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies; by requesting a report from just one agency at time, you can check your credit report at no cost three times a year.
In addition, you should consider setting up a security freeze on your credit report. The freeze will prevent new accounts from being opened in your name unless your identity is proven.
Pay for protection
If you’re still worried that your Social Security number might be stolen, you can sign up for a monitoring program, which will alert you immediately if any suspicious activity is detected on your credit report. A number of companies offer such services and the prices vary considerably, so do your homework.