Once upon a time Social Security Numbers were limited in use, but over time this changed. Fast-forward several decades and, unfortunately, the use of Social Security card numbers (SSN) has spun out of control. In recent years, these numbers have become a valuable commodity. Many criminals covet these strings of digits because they are a gateway to an illicit, but very lucrative, business - which is, of course, identity theft.

Your Social Security card (or equivalent if not in the United States) is a valuable document and is one that should be guarded closely. Today many things of importance are linked in one way or another to this number. With so many problems existing regarding stolen SSNs, it has become more important than ever to take steps to safeguard your number and keep it as private as possible.

Social Security card graphic
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Who Has Your Social Security Number?

In the United States, the SSN started off as a way to handle social security and retirement issues. Since then the number has been farmed out for other purposes. Your SSN is linked to the Internal Revenue Service to identify you for tax returns. Employers use your number in payroll records so you can get paid and your income be reported to the IRS. Financial aid for college, banks and landlords. Just to name a few.

While some agencies have legitimate reasons to have your number, other organizations really don't have a reason for needing it. For years you could find insurance companies, doctor offices, banks, college universities and other organizations routinely asking for SSNs. Even some commercial vendors used it as an identifying numerical link to your account. This happens less nowadays, but there are still many organizations that ask you for your number on their forms. 

Why Do Organizations ‘Need’ Your SSN?

The reason so many agencies and businesses latched onto SSNs is because it is convenient. The SSN is a unique identifying number which only one person can possess, and organizations choose to use it because it simplifies their record keeping processes.

As computer databases expanded and became the norm, the issue of keeping SSNs safe has become of the utmost importance. Cyber security is a growing concern, and these days society is faced with the problem of SSNs being exposed every time a data breach occurs.

Laws are currently being revamped to provide protection for SSNs, but the progress has been slow and much damage has already been done due to the consequences of the loose use of these numbers by so many organizations.

How to Protect Your Social Security Number

If someone with a criminal purpose in mind obtains your SSN, this can cause havoc on your life. Since SSNs are, unfortunately, listed in so many places, there is a level of it being beyond your control. That being the case, it is important you take the extra steps you can to protect your number as best you can.

Lock your card up: The best way to protect and safeguard your Social Security number is to memorize it and then keep the card locked in a safe place. Don't carry it in your wallet, purse or keep it in the glove box of your car.

Be wary of who you share the number with: Don't offer up your number to every business that asks for it. Ask them straight out why they need it and then ask if there is an alternative identifier you can use. Many companies resist this request, but if you push the issue, often there is an alternative which isn't as convenient for them, but it is there. For instance, whenever a doctor’s office asks for this number on a form, I leave it blank. I’ve yet to be questioned on it. 

Medical information
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Use caution when online: Today we make many of our transactions online, and banks, financial aid, and government agencies routinely ask for your SSN. If you need to do it, make sure you are sending it over a secured website. Additionally, be sure your firewall and anti-virus software are up to date. Beware of phishing scams which request your SSN in the hopes of snagging your number.

Do not write it down: Never write your SSN down where it will be seen by others. Also avoid writing it on your SSN on checks, address cards or any other identifying documents. I still run into places that sometimes ask for it to be placed on a check.

Privacy policies: Many times people sign off on forms to get transactions processed, but don't stop to read the privacy policies. Organizations are required to disclose how certain information will be used and it is in your best interests to read these documents carefully before signing off on them.

Speak to lawmakers: Express your concerns to your local congressperson. There is a large movement for change by many privacy advocates and you can do your part by demanding change.

Movement for Change

As a result of new laws and fear of security breaches, many agencies and businesses have shied away from using the SSN as an identifying number and instead replacing them with generic numbers. But there is a way to go. This process is costly due to the logistics of redesigning information systems. It also involves heavy change in organizational cultures, and for a long time organizations resisted taking these steps. Change has started but, in many ways, the damage has already been done.

The U.S. Social Security Administration is actively advocating for organizations to steer away from using SSNs. [1] The federal agency is also promoting using alternative unique identifiers, offering tips and suggestions.

Data protection
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While it’s difficult to protect personally identifiable information (PII), but by taking steps to safeguard yourself and preserve your own information, this won’t guarantee it won’t be compromised, but can cut some of the risks.

In the meantime until the damage is undone as feasibly as it can be and lawful changes are made to give more protection to Social Security numbers, it is up to you to protect and safeguard your own as best you can from it being used for fraudulent purposes.