Social Security numbers are assigned to almost all US citizens and permanent residents. They were originally established in the 1930s to help administer government retirement and disability benefits. But over the decades, nine-digit accounts have become nearly universal identifiers, essential for applying for a credit card, buying a house, and even getting paid by your employer.
Because nearly every citizen and permanent resident in the United States has their own unique number, Social has also become the go-to method of authentication for cellular carriers, utility companies, and other businesses. This makes them a prime target for hackers and makes people increasingly worried about having their number made public. Amay have revealed the social security numbers of nearly half of all Americans.
Here are some situations where you should – and should not – share your personal information.
When to share your social security number
While it’s important to protect your Social Security number, there are legitimate reasons to share those nine digits.
“Any company you apply to for a loan or line of credit needs your number,” Paige Hanson, cybersecurity training manager at NortonLifeLock, said in an interview.
That includes banks and credit reporting agencies, Hanson said, but it could also mean a cellular service provider, because a phone contract is like a line of credit.
Your Social Security number will also be required for “anything that triggers a tax return,” including your employer reporting your wages to the IRS, said Alan Butler, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an organization not-for-profit organization focused on privacy and identity advocacy. rights.
You’ll need to split it if you have an investment advisor or if you make a cash transaction of $10,000 or more, like buying a car or a house.
Government agencies that provide benefits may also request your number, including the US Department of Labor and state agencies that administer Medicaid. Such requests must be accompanied by a disclosure form explaining whether the number is required or optional, confirming the agency’s authority to request it, and explaining what it will be used for.
When not to share your social networks
There are many other cases where you should not provide your social security number. Withnever give out your information over email or over the phone.
“If you did not initiate the call, you should never share your personal information,” said Hanson of NortonLifeLock. “Even if it appears to be from a legitimate company you do business with.”
Confirming the last four digits of your Social is less risky, Hanson said, because that’s data a company already has.
Not everyone asking for your number has bad intentions: “Some companies just want your code just because it’s a faster way to find your account,” Hanson added.
But that’s not reason enough for them to have it.
Others may want it if they get you to sign a contract, like a gym membership. “It’s an easier way to get to a collection agency if they have to,” Hanson said. “But there are other ways.”
Although employers may ask for your Social, “it absolutely cannot be required to get a job,” Hanson said. It should therefore not appear on any job application.
If they won’t budge and you’re not comfortable giving them your personal information, don’t. “Every time another entity stores your Social, it’s an increased chance for identity theft,” Butler said.
How to protect your social security number
By the time you’re an adult, your social security number has been entered into so many databases that it’s impossible to keep it 100% secure. But there are steps consumers can take to better protect their account numbers.
Do not carry your Social Security card in your wallet or purse. Keep it in a safe place at home. And destroy any documents or pieces of mail that include your number, rather than just throwing them away. Also, if you are asked for your SSN, find out why.
“You should feel able to ask, ‘Why do you need this? Where do you store this? ‘” Hanson said. “‘Is there any other information I can use instead?'”
Hanson recently took her daughter to the doctor, and the form at the counter asked for both of their social security numbers.
“There was really no need for them,” Hanson said. “So I left it blank on the form and they said nothing.”
Another way to protect your social security number is to “freeze” your credit reports with Transunion, Equifax, and Experian.
If someone tries to use your number to open a credit card or get a loan, your credit report request will be denied. You can freeze your report indefinitely or set a specific “unfreeze” date.
You should also regularly check your reports for any strange activity — a free copy of all three are available each year at AnnualCreditReport.com — and create an account on the Social Security website to see if anyone is accessing benefits using your number.
What to do if your social security number comes out
If you think you’ve been the victim of identity theft using your Social Security number, report the incident to the Federal Trade Commission, your local police department, and any businesses that may have received your number so fraudulent.
If you believe your number was used illegally to get a job or access your tax return, you can also contact the Social Security Administration at 800-772-1213 or visit the IRS Identity Theft site.
Although it’s possible to get a new Social Security number, it probably won’t solve all of your problems, according to the FTC.
“Sometimes getting a new number can make you worse off,” Steve Toporoff of the FTC’s Identity and Privacy Division said in a statement, “because you have to contact all government agencies, financial institutions, credit bureaus, health insurers, and other places where the old Social Security number might be used.”