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How to Protect Your Social Security Number and When Not to Give It Out

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Most of you probably learned early on to keep your Social Security numbers safe, secure, and private. These nine digits are your primary personal identification numbers, the key to your accounts and private data. As technology has developed, vulnerability to identity theft increases, yet many people are getting more lax about securing their Social Security numbers.

It seems that nearly everyone wants your Social Security number before they’ll do anything for you or with you. So where do you draw the line?

The federal government provides some guidance by specifying that you’re only required to give out the number in specific circumstances:

  1. Filing income taxes
  2. Entering into an employment situation
  3. Conducting business through financial institutions
  4. Applying for government benefits
  5. Applying for a driver’s license

So why does it feel like you need to type, print, and share your ID numbers on a daily basis?

While giving out your Social Security number is technically voluntary, refusing to give it out may mean you can’t access a service or purchase a product. That means that your regular routine as a consumer is subject to a gigantic gray area. This huge can of worms makes it difficult to figure out when it makes sense to give out your Social Security number. To clear up the confusion, consider these seven times to be wary about giving out your number.

When Not to Give Out Your SSN

1. Email

man checking email in his laptop

From online shopping orders to emailing customer support, email is a basic – if not the primary – means of doing business. But since it’s also part of your regular routine for personal contacts, it’s easy to feel very comfortable sharing information over email. In fact, most people don’t even realize they’ve let their guard down before it’s too late. When a business, particularly one you trust, asks for your Social Security number over email, it’s natural to reply and share the information. It’s easy and fast. But you have three reasons to stop and think before you do.

  1. Unlike paper documents that a company can securely file in a locked drawer, the email you send can get forwarded (accidentally or on purpose) and end up in the wrong hands. Digital records are easy to duplicate, and hackers can find their way into the most secure system. Once you hit send, your name and SSN are vulnerable and available.
  2. Even when dealing with a familiar company, you still can’t be sure exactly who will get your email. Saving a customer service representative’s name in your contact list, for example, doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily in touch with that person every time. Don’t trust the “reply-to” field every time.
  3. Your system may be secure, but is your virus software up to date? Can you be sure that the company’s email server is safe? How about the Internet connection you’re using: Is it public WiFi access? Though we’d like to think we’re safe all the time, malicious people may be watching.

In short, even though we’d like to think that one-on-one emails are private, they’re not always really just between the sender and receiver. It’s not a safe place for sharing your Social Security number.

2. Internet

Similarly, the rest of the Internet is dangerous for your Social Security number. But when it comes to online forms on secure sites, sharing can seem unavoidable. Most online stores and businesses can and will accept your credit card number as sufficient information. But if your SSN is a required field, what else are you supposed to do? If you frequently do business on the web, especially if you’re applying for jobs or running your own business, you may find that you need to provide your number more often than you’d like.

If that’s the case, apply for a federal identification number through the IRS, and use that number instead. This number is a valid taxpayer ID for business and tax purposes, but it isn’t one that identity thieves could use to apply for credit or access your personal accounts.

3. Telephone

female architect working desk on computerWhen you’re on the phone, you have a little more control of the situation than you would over email – at least sometimes. Safety on the phone is about trust and control. Only share your number with accredited organizations, and most importantly only after you have verified that the call is legitimate. The biggest troubles come from calls you receive, not the ones you make.

Don’t trust callers who:

  • Say they’re from a particular company but caller ID lists an “unavailable” or “restricted” number. If that’s the case, ask if you can call them back through the regular customer support line. If they say they’re from your phone company, for example, you should be able to call the number on your recent statement and reach someone who will help. Don’t take a risk by dealing with someone you don’t know, can’t authenticate, and can’t call back or report if there’s trouble.
  • Call from numbers you don’t recognize. Take the time to search for the number online to try to verify where they’re calling from. If you take the call, ask for the person’s name and company up front, and look online for confirmation. If you screen the call, dig a little deeper to find out if other people have gotten the call too. Don’t just accept what you see on reverse number lookup sites; always go back to the company’s official site to try and find the number.

If anyone ever contacts you asking for your number, find out who they represent, and tell them you will call them back at their official number.

Once you know you’re dealing with the right people who are really calling from the right company, you can feel more comfortable. But don’t let your guard down completely. Cell phones, VoIP services, and home phone landline alternatives are vulnerable to hacks and attacks, so try to take these calls from home, rather than a public space. And remember that in addition to the call being recorded on the other side, people standing around you may be listening too. Don’t give your number when you’re standing on a crowded street corner or taking a call while shopping at the mall.

4. Anyone Claiming to Be Your Bank or Financial Institution

job applicant having interview handshake while

If someone claiming to represent your bank (or other financial institution) emails or calls and asks for your Social Security number, it’s a scam. It’s not your bank. It’s not your credit card company. And it’s not the urgent situation that the person is saying requires them to get your number over the phone or email.

Your bank may ask for you to confirm the last four digits before finalizing a transaction, but they’ll never ask for your whole number. They have it on file. The same way that Internet service providers remind you that they’ll never ask you for your password, your financial institutions should never ask you for your full nine digits.

5. Resumes and Job Applications

attractive young businesswoman job interview corporate

If you’re used to employers asking, you may be tempted to just put your Social Security number in the header of your resume. Resist the urge. Your goal is to get your resume shared among as many potential employers as possible, and you don’t want that many copies of your number floating around. But what about job applications?

To prove citizenship, you’ll have to give your SSN to employers. But that doesn’t include prospective employers. Most places where you’ll apply for a job will only require your number after they hire you.

But some companies include it on a job application. In some cases, they’re just trying to save time, but in others they just don’t realize that it’s not necessary. Don’t be afraid to pass on sharing this information. Just write “will provide upon offer of employment.” If an interviewer mentions that it’s for a background check, you can explain that you’ll provide it at the end of the interview.

It’s your judgment call on whether or not it feels premature to provide this personal information. You don’t want to jeopardize the job opportunity, but you also don’t want to work somewhere that won’t respect that you protect your identity.

6. Checks

man writing payment check table calculator

With the lone exception of tax payments to government revenue agenciesnever write your Social Security number on a check. Your check already has your bank’s routing number, your personal account number, and your mailing address. Even if the check is for a close, trusted friend, you just don’t want all of this information in the same place. If your friend accidentally loses the check or is the victim of a stolen wallet, you’ll be a likely victim too.

If a vendor ever insists that you add your SSN to your check, summon the nerve to speak with a manager. Offer to add your phone number or even driver’s license number instead, or threaten to take your business elsewhere. Be firm. You should never have to provide this information on a check.

7. Retailers and Other Vendors

sales assistant credit card reader on

Even if you’re not using a check, you may think you have to give your Social Security number to anyone you do business with. They assume they need it, and you assume they’re right. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you’re paying someone by cash, credit card, or debit card, they already have what they need to get paid. If they insist on your SSN, you have ample reason to suspect foul play, and should refuse to do business with them and potentially even report them.

Final Word

Our society has become extremely relaxed about providing and requiring one of the most important security measures that we have: the Social Security number. Since the laws surrounding this issue are quite vague, you need to be fully aware of the potential dangers that come with providing your SSN.

Only give it out in situations where it’s either legally required or you are confident that the party asking for it is legitimate and trustworthy. If you ever have any doubt, err on the side of caution and work your way around having to give out your number. Don’t be afraid to delay your purchase, say no to a sales call, or take your business to another company.

Have you been asked to provide your Social Security number in an uncomfortable situation? How did you handle it?

Kevin Mercadante
With backgrounds in both accounting and the mortgage industry, Kevin Mercadante is professional personal finance blogger, and the owner of his own personal finance blog, OutOfYourRut.com. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and two teenage kids.

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