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.

Those Who Need Your SSN and Those Who Don’t

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, the U.S. Treasury (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. 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. (For more, see The Purpose of Having a Social Security Number.)

Here are 10 things you can do to protect your SSN.    

1. 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.         

2. 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. Ask:

  • 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?
  • Do you have a privacy policy and may I see it?
  • Will you cover my liability or losses if my number is stolen or compromised?

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 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.    

4. 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 is another way thieves can make off with your identity.    

5. 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.

6. 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.”    

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 he or she has a reason and a right to have it.

8. 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.    

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 http://www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount/.     

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. 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. (For more, see Identity Theft: How to Avoid It.)

The Bottom Line

Start by controlling who gets your Social Security number. 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 that you ask questions about how your number will be stored, treated, shared and protected. 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.