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Who Needs Your Social Security Number? (And When to Refuse to Give it Out)

Recently, as my daughter was deciding which college she will attend next fall, I was looking over the various schools’ acceptance forms. Many asked for her Social Security number.  I told Gabriella not to give the school her number. “Why?” she asked. “Because they have no legal right to it,” I said.

Your Social Security number is a golden key. With it, thieves can take out credit and commit other identify theft in your name. The best protection we have is to give our Social Security numbers only when absolutely necessary.

When are you required to give your number? There are essentially two situations:

  • You are doing something that is reportable to the IRS or your state’s tax department; and/or
  • You are engaged in a financial transaction that is subject to the Customer Identification Program. This is a provision of the USA Patriot Act which requires financial institutions to verify your identity.

You do need to give your Social Security number (SSN) to:

  • Companies from which you are applying for credit: credit cards, loans of any type, cell phone service
  • Your department of motor vehicles
  • Employers
  • The three main credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion
  • Federal and state agencies when applying for benefits: Social Security, Medicare, disability, Medicaid, and other aid programs`
  • Investment advisors and brokerage houses
  • Banks
  • Companies with which you have a cash transaction of $10,000 or more: car dealerships, RV and boat dealerships, etc.
  • Companies facilitating real estate transactions

Many organizations ask for your Social Security numbers out of habit. Some want to use it as your identification number or to be able to collect if you don’t pay them. I have heard some medical providers want your number in case you die. (If this happens, your emergency contact can provide it.)

Most places are not required to collect, and, therefore, should not have possession of your Social Security number. These include:

  • Colleges and universities
  • The College Board
  • Hospitals
  • Medical offices
  • Health insurers
  • Other medical businesses
  • Primary and secondary schools
  • Summer camps
  • Retailers and grocery stores (some want to write it on checks presented for payment)
  • Government agencies at all levels except when they are required to obtain it
  • Charities (Some may want your number to run a background check. You have to decide whether it is worth the risk.)
  • Service providers (I recently helped a client call her trash hauling service. They wanted her SSN in case she doesn’t pay. With her SSN they can turn her over to a collection agency.)
  • Anyone who contacts you by phone, official looking mail, or text asking (or demanding) your Social Security number. Only give it out when you initiate the contact and only when it is necessary.

We need to be vigilant about giving out our numbers. Don’t automatically give it out when asked. Instead, stop and think. If in doubt, you can:

  • Ask the name of the law which requires the organization to collect it and for an explanation of that law.
  • Request an identification number that is not your SSN.
  • Ask to have your identity verified by another means.
  • Inquire what measures and procedures are in place to keep your number safe. Is it stored on portable devices, especially ones that leave the office? Is it encrypted? Which staff members have access to it, and do they need access to perform their duties? If the SSN is on paper, is the paper shredded and how secure is that paper before it is shredded?
  • Refuse to give it out. Be aware, however, companies and other organizations can elect to not provide you service if you refuse.

Finally, don’t automatically fill in your SSN on forms. My daughter skipped this on the form for the college she will be attending. Nobody from the school said a word.

This blog is published to provide you with general information only, and is not intended to provide specific or comprehensive advice.  Money Care, LLC encourages individuals to seek advice from competent professionals when appropriate.