When to keep it to yourself
Equifax breach should be a wake-up call to use caution
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.