Identity theft thrives in the U.S. in part because Americans feel obligated to provide their Social Security number (SSN) for many types of interactions. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to thwart identity thieves.
SSNs were never intended to be a "one size fits all" primary ID, but in many ways, that's exactly what has happened. Ultimately, it falls on individuals to protect their own Social Security number.
- To protect your SSN, start by controlling who gets it. The fewer places to track, the better.
- Don't give your number out just because someone asks.
- Validate the reason and the authority first, then make sure to ask questions about how your number will be stored, treated, shared, and protected.
When to Provide Your Social Security 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. This includes your employer, banks/lenders, the U.S. Treasury for savings bonds, state or welfare departments, state unemployment insurance departments, and workers' compensation.
Although other institutions and businesses have the right to ask for your number, they don’t need it.
How to Protect Your Social Security Number
Here are 10 things you can do to protect your SSN:
1. Offer an Alternative Form of ID
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.
2. Ask Why and How the SSN Will Be Handled
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. Ask questions such as:
- Why is having my Social Security number necessary?
- With whom will you share my number if I provide it?
- How will my number be stored?
- Will you cover my liability or losses if my number is stolen or compromised?
Unfortunately, if you are asked to provide your SSN by a business or institution that doesn't need it and you say no, it can refuse to provide services to you or put conditions on the service—such as a deposit or additional fees.
3. 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 devices. 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.
4. Shred Mail and Documents with Personal Details
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 is another way thieves can make off with your information.
5. Don't Use Your SSN as a Password
Don't use the whole Social Security 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.
6. Don't Send Your SSN via an Electronic Device
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 voicemail 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."
7. 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 they have a reason and a right to have it.
8. Monitor Bank and Credit Card Accounts
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.
Check your credit score on a regular basis at www.AnnualCreditReport.com. You can do this once a year for free. If the Social Security Administration is still sending you an annual statement detailing your earnings, and it looks out of whack, someone might be using your number for employment purposes. You can register to get statements at the Social Security Administration's website.
9. 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.
10. Don't Forget to Protect Your Child's SSN
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.
A Helpful Resource
The Social Security Administration publishes a booklet called Identity Theft and Your Social Security Number. In addition to basic protection tips, it provides information about what you should do in the event you believe your identity and SSN have been stolen or compromised.