When to keep it to your­self

Equifax breach should be a wake-up call to use cau­tion

USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Steven Petrow @steven­petrow Spe­cial for USA TO­DAY

We’re dis­clos­ing So­cial Se­cu­rity num­bers left and right, and the mas­sive Equifax breach is a wakeup call to some­times say, “No.”

For the 143 mil­lion Equifax cus­tomers the credit re­port­ing firm says might have had their per­sonal in­for­ma­tion stolen, one of the first steps ad­vised by Equifax re­quired en­ter­ing a par­tial so­cial se­cu­rity num­ber. That process was rid­dled with prob­lems, adding to con­sumers’ al­ready deep sense of vul­ner­a­bil­ity.

But Equifax, not­with­stand­ing com­plaints about how it han­dled the breach, is jus­ti­fied in ask­ing for the in­for­ma­tion, said Jean Chatzky, au­thor of Money Rules: The Sim­ple Path to Life­long Se­cu­rity” and host of the pod­cast HerMoney.

Credit bu­reaus — Tran­sunion, Ex­pe­rian and Equifax — re­quire this in­for­ma­tion “to prove that you are you.” They also might ask you to an­swer some other ques­tions about places you’ve lived or loans you’ve had or seek a par­tial num­ber to help iden­tify you.

It also is le­git­i­mate to get asked for the num­ber in any deal­ings with the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice — fil­ing taxes or mak­ing pay­roll, for in­stance, said Joe Valenti, di­rec­tor of con­sumer fi­nance at the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress, a think tank.

In­sur­ance com­pa­nies, credit card com­pa­nies, and any com­pany that sells prod­ucts or ser­vices that re­quire no­ti­fi­ca­tion to the IRS (such as banks and car deal­ers) have a right to ask, too.

Fed­eral law man­dates that state tax author­i­ties, de­part­ments of mo­tor ve­hi­cles and other gov­ern­men­tal agen­cies may le­git­i­mately re­quest your So­cial Se­cu­rity num­ber to iden­tify you. (But the Pri­vacy Act of 1974 re­quires all gov­ern­ment agen­cies to dis­close whether sub­mit­ting your num­ber is re­quired and how it will use the in­for­ma­tion.)

If you ini­ti­ate a cash trans­ac­tion to­tal­ing more than $10,000, you must pro­vide your So­cial Se­cu­rity num­ber so that the trans­ac­tion can be re­ported to the IRS.

Ac­cord­ing to Valenti, doc­tors, hos­pi­tals, univer­sity and other Doc­tors and schools have no le­gal ba­sis to ask, but “it’s just con­ve­nient for them.”

Joe Valenti, di­rec­tor of con­sumer fi­nance at the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress, a think tank

schools have no le­gal ba­sis to ask, al­though they of­ten do be­cause “it’s just con­ve­nient for them.”

With the in­creas­ing threat of iden­tity theft in re­cent years, health care providers and in­sti­tu­tions of higher ed­u­ca­tion (like the mil­i­tary ser­vices) are try­ing to min­i­mize the use of So­cial Se­cu­rity num­bers or cre­ate new ways to iden­tify us. Valenti points to dif­fer­ent tools, no­tably the in­creased use of bio­met­ric data, such as thumbprint or iris scans and fa­cial recog­ni­tion ID.

Still, So­cial Se­cu­rity num­bers have be­come a de facto na­tional iden­ti­fi­ca­tion num­ber, which makes them a hot ticket for iden­tity theft.

Robert El­lis Smith, a pri­vacy ex­pert and the pub­lisher of Pri­vacy Jour­nal, said there are still plenty of more tra­di­tional ways to iden­tify us: full name, date of birth, ad­dress or former res­i­dence, place of em­ploy­ment. “Two other fac­tors help to cre­ate a vi­able match,” he said.

The trick, he said, to with­hold­ing your So­cial Se­cu­rity num­ber is to know when it’s legally re­quired and when it’s dis­cre­tionary, as well as how to phrase a re­fusal in a pos­i­tive way. Ex­plain why you’re re­luc­tant. “Be­cause I’m con­cerned about my pri­vacy, I choose to keep that in­for­ma­tion to my­self,” he sug­gested, fol­lowed up with, “What else can I do to com­plete the trans­ac­tion?” Or ask, in your nicest voice, “Why do you need my num­ber? Is there a law that re­quires you to ask?” What we can do: uDon’t dis­close your So­cial Se­cu­rity num­ber with­out think­ing twice and ask­ing your­self why it might be needed.

uKnow when the law re­quires dis­clo­sure and when it’s dis­cre­tionary.

uAsk to pro­vide al­ter­na­tive means of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion to your So­cial Se­cu­rity num­ber.

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