I recently renewed my gym membership, and next to the line requesting my birth date was one requesting my Social Security number. I found the question a little odd, and I hesitated, wondering, How could they possibly need that? Then I remembered all the other times I’d filled out forms that requested my SSN—forms for the library, the electric company, and even my video store membership—and that most of those times, I’d willingly handed over the information without batting an eye.
Some discussions of informational privacy may seem silly and overblown (like discussions of exactly who gets to see those Facebook pictures you posted purposely), but protecting the integrity of your Social Security number is actually very important. Identity theft is still a billion-dollar business, and all it takes for you to spend the next several years untangling the tatters of your financial life is for those precious nine digits to fall into the wrong hands. Some businesses and entities have a legitimate, government-mandated interest in knowing and recording your Social Security number. Some don’t. Before you divulge it on even one more form, learn the difference.
The Accidental Authenticator
The funny thing is that the SSN was never intended to be used the way we use it today. When the first numbers were given out in 1936, they were supposed to merely denote a retirement account number, not meant to be de facto personal identifiers or authenticators that would follow us through our lives and record each little bit of our personal, financial, residential, and transactional history.
Government agencies and businesses began using the SSN more broadly when records became computerized—it was a lot easier to differentiate between people across multiple platforms by using this unique numeric code, instead of by relying on names. Since each person had already been assigned one unique number at birth, the Social Security number seemed like an ideal number to use.
These days, businesses request SSNs for a variety of reasons. Some want to run credit checks on their customers, some want to keep their records intact through customers’ address or name changes, and some simply want the number for use as that unique identifier. But while most businesses request the number only for legitimate purposes, some do make money by selling their customers’ information to marketers, and a list including Social Security numbers is much more valuable than a list of names alone.
Who Gets It
There are only a few entities to which you are legally obligated to provide your Social Security number.
- Certain government agencies (Department of Motor Vehicles, welfare, unemployment, Medicare, Medicaid, Internal Revenue Service)
- Financial services firms (brokerages, investment firms)
Because an SSN can also serve as your taxpayer identification number, any transaction that you report on your taxes—including employment documents, unemployment payments, or investment or inheritance paperwork—is required to include one. An SSN is also required to open a new bank account, because the PATRIOT Act requires banks to participate in customer identification programs to verify customers’ identities and prevent money laundering.
When a government entity demands your SSN, it’s required to provide a disclosure form stating why it needs the number and exactly what it plans on doing with the information. Privacy laws strictly control what these agencies can do with the information they collect. Just remember that many governmental forms request a Social Security number, but not all of them actually require it.
- Doctors/health insurance plans (unless the patient is on Medicare/Medicaid)
- Schools (except in certain circumstances)
- Utility companies
- Credit card companies
- Miscellaneous businesses (gyms, libraries, etc.)
Many schools once used students’ SSNs as identification numbers. Although identity-theft concerns have prompted many to abandon the practice, most still request the number in order to streamline record keeping. Publicly funded colleges and universities can request students’ Social Security numbers only if they provide the students with the standard disclosure statement and the usual government protection applies to the information given. Private schools can request the numbers if they wish, but the government does not regulate what happens to the information.
Most of the other entities that request Social Security numbers are attempting to verify customers’ identities and make sure that they are creditworthy, but there’s no law requiring customers to comply. You don’t have to provide an SSN to see a doctor, to apply for health insurance, or to get utility service. You don’t even need an SSN to get a new credit card. However, although the customer is not required to disclose his or her number, the business isn’t required to do business with anyone who doesn’t. Privacy experts suggest trying to agree on an alternate means of identification, such as a driver’s license or passport. Some businesses may oblige, but they can also legally refuse to provide services to anyone who doesn’t comply with their informational demands.
Aside from the fact that you’re not required to divulge the number in every circumstance, experts recommend taking basic steps to safeguard your information, such as not giving out your Social Security number over the phone or online, and not carrying your Social Security card in your wallet. Any time a business asks you for your number, it should be able to explain to you exactly why it’s needed. If it can’t, simply refuse to provide your SSN, or ask for a manager to arrange an alternate means of identification. Giving out your social may seem like no big deal, but each time it’s revealed is one more chance that the number could be stolen or leaked. When in doubt, don’t give it out.