How to determine when it is safe to release your social security number

Last Updated: July 29, 2021

How to determine when it is safe to release your social security number

At Social Security, protecting your personal information is more important than ever. We continue to evaluate and improve our robust cyber-security program to safeguard your information. The thing is, we can’t do it alone. You can help us secure your information by taking one of these steps:

  • Open your personal my Social Security account. A my Social Security account is your gateway to many of our online services. Create your account today and take away the risk of someone else trying to create one in your name, even if they obtain your Social Security number.
  • If you already have a my Social Security account, but haven’t signed in lately, take a moment to log in. We’ll send a one-time security code to your cell phone or to your email address each time you sign in with your username and password. The security code is part of our enhanced security feature to protect your personal information. Keep in mind that your cell phone provider’s text message and data rates may apply. If you suspect identity theft, report it to our Office of the Inspector General.
  • If you know your Social Security information has been compromised, and you don’t want to do business with us online, you can contact us to block any automated telephone and electronic access to your Social Security record. No one, including you, will be able to see or change your personal information on the internet or through our automated telephone service. If you block access to your record and then change your mind in the future, you can contact us and ask us to unblock it after you prove your identity. This resource is available to certain victims of domestic violence or identity theft and those who need extra security.

We will continue to do our part to protect what’s important to you. And we’ll continue to advise you on how to protect yourself.

About the Author

Jim Borland, Acting Deputy Commissioner for Communications

Jim Borland, Acting Deputy Commissioner for Communications

The dramatic rise in identity theft over the last several years has resulted in many changes to the list of people and businesses that are legally entitled to request a Social Security number (SSN).

Not long ago, people provided their Social Security numbers without a second thought. Criminals took advantage of that complacency, and as a result, the federal government established the Identity Theft Task Force in 2006. One of the first recommendations the task force made was decreasing the unnecessary use of Social Security numbers. Much work remains in overcoming old procedures and habits in this regard, but any progress on this issue is better than the status quo.

Who has the right to request your SSN? Federal law mandates that state Departments of Motor Vehicles, tax authorities, welfare offices, and other governmental agencies request your SS number as proof that you are who you claim to be. However, the Privacy Act of 1974 requires that government agencies at the local, state, and federal level disclose to each person whether submitting your Social Security number is required, details on the use of this information, and what law or authority requires its use.

Please note that this Act stipulates that no one can deny you a government service or benefit for failing to provide your SSN unless federal law specifically requires it.

You aren’t legally required to provide your SSN to businesses unless one of the following is true:

• You’ll be engaging in a transaction that requires notification to the Internal Revenue Service; or

• You’re initiating a financial transaction subject to federal Customer Identification Program rules.

If you refuse to provide your SSN, companies may choose not to do business with you, but there’s no law that prevents them from asking for it. These are some examples of businesses that require a Social Security number for legitimate purposes:

• Insurance companies
• Credit card companies, lenders, and any other company receiving a credit application from you
• The three main credit reporting agencies: TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian
• Any company that sells products or services that require notification to the IRS, including investment advisors; banks; real estate purchases; financial transactions over $10,000, such as automobile purchases; and other financial transactions

It’s important to remember that, once a company has your Social Security number, there are few restrictions on what they can do with it. You’ll therefore want share this information only when absolutely necessary or required by law. Being very careful about sharing your SSN or any other personal information is a recommended way to help deter identity theft.

How to protect your privacy and still get good treatment

You’re filling out forms at a doctor’s office, hospital, or other healthcare facility and come to a line asking for your Social Security number.

Should you write those nine digits down?

Generally, no, say privacy experts. “Having Social Security numbers at the doctor’s office is a data breach risk, and it’s one that’s increasing,” says Pam Dixon, executive director of the nonprofit World Privacy Forum.

If stolen, your SSN offers thieves easy access your personal health and financial information, and they could possibly steal your identity.

This makes SSNs much sought-after commodities on the black market. In fact, the 2018 Identity Fraud Study from Javelin Strategy & Research, found that for the first time, more SSNs than credit card numbers were stolen last year.

And sensitive information like Social Security numbers is taken in more than 70 percent of hospital data breaches, according to a recent study in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Plus, for the most part—there are a few exceptions—healthcare providers don’t really need your SSN, though some may want it to track you down if billing issues arise.

“So, when my healthcare provider asks for my Social Security number, I leave the line blank and recommend other patients do so as well,” says Dena B. Mendelsohn, senior policy counsel for Consumer Reports.

But what if a healthcare provider, doctor’s office receptionist, office manager, or hospital employee insists? Here’s our advice.

Know the Law

Generally, you’re under no obligation to provide your SSN to healthcare providers (but they’re not obligated to take you as a patient either). Health insurers will likely ask for it, and you do have to offer it up if you’re entering a VA hospital.

And as of last April, the rollout of the new non-SSN Medicare ID cards was completed. Medicare IDs cards used to include Social Security numbers, but now have an 11-character Medicare Beneficiary Identifier (MBI), that’s a mix of letters and numbers.

If you use Medicare, you have to share your MBI with healthcare providers. According to Medicare, you need to protect the new card as you would a credit card, giving the number only “to doctors, pharmacists, other healthcare providers, your insurer, or people you trust to work with Medicare on your behalf.” (And watch out for phone, mail, and internet scams that request your MBI.)

Note that until the end of 2019, healthcare providers can use either new Medicare IDs or the old ones to communicate with or seek payment from the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). After that, there are a few limited exceptions for use of the older Medicare cards.

How to Just Say No

If you’re asked to provide your SSN—and simply leaving the space blank doesn’t get you a pass—politely push back.

You can also express your concern, noting that you’re hesitant to share your Social Security number because you’re worried about identity theft. And ask why the healthcare facility requires the number, suggests Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), a nonprofit group that helps fraud victims.

“When I encountered this problem and asked why they needed it, the receptionist said ‘we don’t need it, we just haven’t changed the form,”’ she says. “So some of it is just an organizational failure.”

In some cases, your healthcare provider may say they need your Social Security number simply because they have a field in their computerized medical records that must be filled in. The solution? Ask them to use zeros.

If you’re told it’s so they can track you down in case of billing problems, offer an alternative, such as your cell phone. But Dixon cautions about sharing other information, like your driver’s license. “You want to keep as many of the numbers that define you out of circulation,” she says.

Quiz the staff on their security practices and repeat your concerns to the doctor if you still don’t get satisfaction. “If your provider or their front desk staff insists on using your Social Security number, ask them why and how they will protect that information,” says Mendelsohn.

You can’t be sure your healthcare provider’s security practices are sufficiently robust. Research published this year in JAMA Internal Medicine, which looked at the causes of 1,138 breaches of protected health information, found that 53 percent were “attributable to the healthcare entities’ own mistakes or neglect,” according to the authors.

Finally, consider moving on, “If the answer you get is not satisfactory, you may ask yourself whether this is the right provider for you,” Mendelsohn says.

How to determine when it is safe to release your social security number

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Your Social Security number should be among your biggest secrets, but there are times when you’ll have to give it out. If you accept a job, your new employer will need a copy of your Social Security card on file, and you’ll be asked to provide your number when opening a bank account or applying for a loan. But although it’s common practice to share your number in certain situations, you don’t have to give your number just because you’re asked to do so.

If your Social Security number falls into the wrong hands, someone could open credit accounts in your name and steal your identity. Once your identity is compromised, your credit score can suffer the consequences, and it could become harder to purchase a house and get other types of financing.

The good news is that there’s plenty you can do to keep your number safe. Here are a few dos and don’ts for giving out your Social Security number. (See also: The Comprehensive Guide to Identity Theft: Everything You Need to Know)

1. Don’t Respond to Emails Asking to Confirm Your Social Security Number

This is one of the oldest phishing tricks in the books.

Here’s how it works: You receive an email from a company claiming to be your personal bank or credit card issuer. The email will state that the company needs to update your account information, at which point you’re asked to click a link and confirm your Social Security number and other information. Some thieves may even call your house phishing for information.

No matter how real or official an email or phone call appears, remember that your bank or credit card company will never call or send an email requesting your personal data. Ignore these correspondences and report fraudulent activity to the Federal Trade Commission. Let your bank or credit card company know about the fraud, and you can forward phishing emails to [email protected]

2. Do Ask About the Reason for Requesting Your SSN

There are many reasons why a company might ask for your Social Security number. In some cases, the reasons are legitimate. For example, if you’re getting a home security system, the security company may ask for your Social Security number. This is likely because the security agreement is a two or three-year contract, and the company needs to run a credit check to see if you meet the credit requirements. But this doesn’t mean you should hand over your number without a fight. Make sure you understand why a company needs your personal information. If you don’t agree or feel comfortable with their explanation, don’t give out your number.

This rule also applies to family and friends who ask for your Social Security number. It doesn’t matter if it’s your parents, your brother, or your favorite cousin; there are few reasons why anyone would need your number. One example of a legitimate reason is if a relative names you as the beneficiary on his or her life insurance policy. The insurance company will need your Social Security number.

3. Do Offer an Alternative Way to Identify Yourself

Some companies rely on Social Security numbers to identify account holders. If you call your utility company or your cable company’s customer service, the rep on the other end may ask for your number to pull up your account faster. This is a legitimate and innocent reason. But before you give out your number, ask the customer service rep if there’s another way to find your account. You might be able to skip giving out your Social Security number if you have your account number handy, or you may only need to provide the last four digits of your SSN.

4. Don’t Shout Your Number in Earshot of Others

If you go to the bank to make a loan payment and ask the teller for a payoff amount, the bank may require two methods of identification, such as your driver’s license and your Social Security number. It’s important to be aware of your surroundings when giving out your number. You’ll want to keep your number private and still get the information you need. Some banks have keypads, which allow customers to type in their own Social Security number so they don’t have to speak the number out loud. If this isn’t an option, ask the teller or representative for a scratch sheet of paper. Write down your Social Security number so that the rep can enter the number into the computer. Once your number is entered, ask for the paper back and then scratch out the numbers and shred the paper.

5. Do Check Your Credit Report

It doesn’t matter how careful you are with your Social Security number, there’s always the risk of your information falling into the wrong hands. Hackers can break into a company or organization’s computer system and steal account holder information. For that matter, don’t ignore checking your own credit report at least once a year. Pulling your own credit history doesn’t hurt your credit score. You can order a free copy of all three reports annually from AnnualCreditReport.com.

Have you given out your Social Security number before and it turned out to be a mistake? How do you protect yourself today? Let’s chat in the comments below.

Disclaimer: This site contains affiliate links from which we receive a compensation (like Amazon for example). But they do not affect the opinions and recommendations of the authors.

Wise Bread is an independent, award-winning consumer publication established in 2006. Our finance columns have been reprinted on MSN, Yahoo Finance, US News, Business Insider, Money Magazine, and Time Magazine.

Like many news outlets our publication is supported by ad revenue from companies whose products appear on our site. This revenue may affect the location and order in which products appear. But revenue considerations do not impact the objectivity of our content. While our team has dedicated thousands of hours to research, we aren’t able to cover every product in the marketplace.

For example, Wise Bread has partnerships with brands including, but not limited to, American Express, Bank of America, Capital One, Chase, Citi, Discover, and Amazon.

It’s best to keep that number to yourself whenever possible.

Your Social Security number is a powerful string of digits. It’s the identification number the government uses to track your wages, and it’s something you’ve probably heard you should keep under wraps to the greatest extent possible. The reason? If your Social Security number falls into the wrong hands, you could wind up a victim of identity theft.

The tricky thing, of course, is that you may land in a host of scenarios where you’re asked to provide that number. For example, you’ll typically need it to open a bank account, or to enroll in a retirement plan like an IRA. But there are some situations where you may be asked to give out your Social Security number even though you’re not required to. Here are a few where it’s perfectly OK to say no.

How to determine when it is safe to release your social security number

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

1. When you’re applying for a job

Once you’re offered a job, you’ll need to give out your Social Security number in the course of the onboarding process. This way, your employer can verify your identity for wage-reporting purposes. And you want that to happen, because your Social Security retirement benefits will be based on your lifetime earnings, so any missing wages on your record could cause you to lose out financially later in life.

That said, there’s really no need to give out your Social Security number during the job application process. An employer might ask for it to verify that you’re eligible to be hired should the desire to make you an offer come to be, but in most cases, providing that number shouldn’t be mandatory.

2. When you’re signing up for a loyalty program

It’s common to be asked to provide your Social Security number when you’re applying for a new credit card. But if you’re simply applying for a loyalty card — meaning, one that gives you rewards at a specific retailer based on your spending — then there’s no need to give out that number. The reason? Loyalty cards don’t give you any sort of line of credit. They can’t be used to borrow money or pay bills, and as such, you really shouldn’t have to provide much, if any, personal information to get one.

3. When you’re registering a child for school

To enroll your child in public school, you’ll generally need to prove that you live where you say you do, and to that end, you’ll need to supply documents like utility bills and a driver’s license that list your address. Your Social Security number, though, should not be on the list of necessary identification items to supply.

The same holds true when you’re applying for college, or when a child of yours is doing the same. The only time your Social Security number will come into play is if you’re applying for financial aid, but if you aren’t, you shouldn’t have to share it.

4. When you’re visiting a doctor

This one’s a bit of a gray area. It’s common for medical offices to ask for your Social Security number, but the reason they do so is to have a means of tracking you down if you fail to make good on an outstanding bill. Much of the time, you don’t need to provide a Social Security number to get medical care; providing your insurance information will suffice. This holds true even if you’re on Medicare. In fact, Medicare recently replaced its old ID cards, which contained Social Security numbers, with new ones, to protect that very information. If a medical office insists that you must provide a Social Security number, push back. Ask why that number is needed, how it will be used, and what steps will be taken to keep it secure.

5. When a random caller asks for it over the phone

Banks, companies, and government agencies generally won’t call you up out of the blue asking for your Social Security number. If you get an unsolicited call and you’re asked to provide that information, hang up the phone and do not, under any circumstances, comply. In fact, you should really report the number that called you to the Social Security Administration so that it can investigate and perhaps nip that scam in the bud.

You can’t afford to let your Social Security number fall into the wrong hands, so be sure to know when you should and shouldn’t give that information out. Furthermore, it’s a wise idea to memorize that number and store your Social Security card in a secure place, like a locked safe at home. Carrying that card around at all times only increases your chances of losing it or having it stolen, and since it’s not something you should be using on a daily basis, there’s no need to expose yourself to that risk.

How to determine when it is safe to release your social security number

While no cybercriminal worth his salt would turn down a chance to get his hands on your credit card information, there’s an even bigger prize: your Social Security number, which cybersecurity experts say is now the single most valuable piece of information in terms of being able to steal your identity.

So if our Social Security numbers are such hot property, why do doctors routinely ask for them? The answer isn’t particularly endearing: Your doctor’s office wants your Social Security number so it can better track you down if you don’t pay your bill.

But no, you don’t legally have to provide it unless you are a Medicare or Medicaid recipient. Nor should you, experts say. In fact, not even the American Medical Association wants you to.

“Healthcare providers and others ask for your SSN because it’s easier for them to track unique individuals that way,” said Mark Nunnikhoven, vice president of cloud research for TrendMicro, an information security company.

Given that Medicare/Medicaid covers roughly 35 percent of Americans, it may be that requesting the Social Security number from all patients is just more expedient for the doctor or hospital. But it’s certainly not best for patients, who may be exposing themselves to identity theft.

“When asked for your SSN outside of legally required uses, push back.”

In 2017, there were 830 data breaches involving Social Security numbers, representing more than half of the total reported number of breaches. A whopping 158 million numbers were exposed, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center ― more than eight times the number exposed in 2016.

Many of these breaches occurred in the health care industry, where medical records enjoy a long shelf life. The industry has a reputation for being something of a leaky sieve for information that should be kept confidential, according to TrendMicro, which calls the health care sector a “preferred target” for cybercriminals. The health care industry, with hospitals leading the way, reported that 113.2 million health care-related records were stolen in 2015 ― the most ever, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Alarmingly, about half of all health care organizations had little or no confidence that they could detect the loss or theft of patient data, and the majority lack the budget to secure their data, according to a 2016 annual study on health care data privacy and security by the Ponemon Institute, a security research and consulting organization.

Only a few organizations actually have a legal right to your SSN, including your employer, banks and lenders, investment funds, the IRS and government-funded programs such as workers’ compensation.

The more your number is out there, the greater the risk of identity theft. Armed with your Social Security number, someone can file fraudulent tax returns in your name, open credit cards, or get official documents like a passport or driver’s license. And it’s a nightmarish bit of data to have stolen. If a thief steals your credit card or bank account number, for example, it’s useful only until the credit limit is reached or you catch on to the hack and close the account. But you can’t close your Social Security number.

And it gets worse: It’s an open secret that a person’s Medicare number includes their Social Security number. It’s printed right out on the front of every Medicare card for the world to see. That is being corrected, however: New cards with randomly assigned Medicare numbers are in the process of being issued to replace the ones that bear Social Security numbers.

Part of the overall problem is that Social Security numbers were never designed to be used as identity authenticators. Decades ago, they began being issued as a way of recording your earnings to determine the amount of benefits you would be paid at retirement or if you claimed a disability. Through the years, they morphed into a popular form of identification ― and, most recently, became coveted by cyber-thieves.

Nunnikhoven said that the issue of our Social Security numbers being used as identifiers ― despite explicit warnings against doing so ― is made more complicated because of decades of supplying it to anyone who asks.

“Most Americans are so comfortable using their SSN that they have the number memorized,” Nunnikhoven said. “Given that it is only supposed to be used for Social Security and other federal government programs, that’s an indicator of a serious issue.”

Still, most health care providers request your SSN for transactions. Nunnikhoven suggests asking what other form of identification the doctor’s office would accept ― say, a driver’s license or a photo ID.

“When asked for your SSN outside of legally required uses, push back,” he said. “Awareness is key to making this shift away from SSN usage happen in a reasonable time frame.”

And, as for those places that just ask for the last four digits? They aren’t doing you any favors either. The first five digits of a person’s number are easy to figure out using publicly available information, according to a 2009 study at Carnegie Mellon University. Those numbers represent where the card was issued and when, so if someone knows where and when you were born, they’re a piece of cake to decode. If a savvy fraudster can get you to tell him the last four of your Social Security number, he’s in business.

Let your doctor know his own advocacy group discourages the practice.

“Our AMA policy is to discourage the use of Social Security numbers to identify insureds, patients, and physicians, except in those situations where the use of these numbers is required by law and/or regulation,” the American Medical Association states on its website.

How to determine when it is safe to release your social security number

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A Social Security number is used for personal identification, and is necessary to do a credit check on a potential tenant. With the rise in identity theft, people have become reluctant to share this information with strangers, especially before they’ve signed a lease or entered a formal contractual agreement with a landlord. You can refuse to give out the digits, but don’t be surprised if the landlord, in return, refuses to rent to you.

Function

Although the Social Security card isn’t in itself an identification card, the number is a unique range of digits assigned to just one person. A landlord will use your Social Security number not only for credit check purposes, but to also confirm your identity with a possible background check. Social Security numbers are also integral for banking purposes. According to real estate lawyer Eric Kahan, quoted in “The New York Times,” “Landlords have an obligation to get Social Security numbers when they are establishing security deposit accounts for tenants.”

Time Frame

Usually, a landlord asks for a Social Security number before approving a tenant, not after the fact. The number is usually part of the application process. If the inquiry comes after a tenancy has begun, the tenant may wonder why the information is necessary. Therefore, timeliness of the request is paramount. Otherwise, a tenant may get suspicious and start asking questions about what, exactly, the number will be used for. A 2005 court case in Manhattan found that a tenant can refuse a late or random request for a Social Security number since it is “prima facie privileged information,” according to Jay Romano of “The New York Times.”

Considerations

It’s sensible to be concerned about identity theft and privacy issues, especially when handing out something as valuable as a Social Security number. Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, points out that consumers use this important information in transactions from cell phones to bank accounts. “We really are in a terrible situation today with the abuse and overuse of Social Security numbers,” she remarks in an interview with MSNBC.com.

When giving your Social Security number to a landlord, ask him precisely how he will use the number as well as his methods of disposal or storage of the information after he’s finished. If the landlord refuses to give out this information, or doesn’t give clear answers, err on the side of caution and keep your number to yourself.

Warning

Sadly, there are scammers aplenty in the real estate world. Fake landlords will show an apartment, collect completed applications from several prospective tenants, then sell the information on the black market. In addition, free listing sites such as Craigslist are infamous for fake rental listings that request a Social Security number for a preliminary credit check.

Before giving out your Social Security number, ask to see identification and copy the information for your records. Search public information records for building management information, then contact the main office number and verify the landlord’s identity. For another layer of protection, work with an established real estate agent rather than through independent rental channels.

The Bottom Line

For most properties, you’ll have to give your Social Security number to secure your rental and establish the necessary accounts. If this is a problem, ask if the landlord will process your application with your own printed credit and background reports. However, be prepared to run into problems or to have your application denied. The majority of landlords who ask for a Social Security number are simply trying to get enough information to make your rental as safe as possible for all parties involved.

Last Updated: May 12, 2021

How to determine when it is safe to release your social security numberEvery year, millions of Americans become victims of identity theft. Identity theft occurs when someone steals your personally identifiable information and pretends to be you. They can use this information to open bank or credit card accounts, file taxes, or make new purchases in your name.

It is important that you take steps to protect your Social Security number from theft. If someone obtains your Social Security number, they can use it to get other personal information about you, including your bank or credit information. Someone can steal your Social Security number by:

  • Stealing your wallet, purse, or mail.
  • Obtaining personal information you provide to an unsecured site on the Internet.
  • Rummaging through your trash.
  • Posing by phone or email as someone who needs information about you.

If someone asks for your number, you should ask why, how it will be used, and what will happen if you refuse. Make sure you give your employer and your financial institution(s) your correct Social Security number, so your records and tax information are accurate.

To minimize the risk of identity theft, keep your Social Security card and any other documents that show your Social Security number in a safe place. Do not carry your Social Security card or other documents with you that display your number unless you need them.

If you suspect someone’s using your Social Security number for work purposes, report the problem to us immediately by contacting the Federal Trade Commission. We will review your earnings with you to ensure our records are accurate. You may also verify your earnings were posted correctly with your personal my Social Security account. If you don’t have a my Social Security account, you can create an account today!

If someone misused your Social Security number to create credit or other problems for you, immediately go report the identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission. Their website provides detailed information to help you defend against identity theft. You can reach them by phone by calling 1-877-IDTHEFT (1-877-438-4338); TTY 1-866-653-4261.

You may also want to contact the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and file an online complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center.

Safeguarding your identity and Social Security is of the utmost importance. If you think you’re a victim of identity theft, please act now. For more information, read our publication Identity Theft And Your Social Security Number or visit us online.