Giving Out Your Social Security Number Online: Just Say No

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Have you ever thought about how many times you’ve given out your Social Security number without thinking about the consequences? Or why so many organizations say they need it?

If you haven’t, you’re not alone. Social Security numbers are the most important piece of information a cybercriminal needs to commit identity theft. Yet many consumers don’t worry about handing over their most valuable identity asset until it’s too late. Like this man, who wrote Yahoo! Answers seeking advice about whether his SSN could be stolen on a WiFi hotspot:

“I used the public wifi and typed in my social security number and some other information. What should I do now? Can someone hack into my info?”

“If someone happened to be packet sniffing the network when you typed that in and saved it, it’s possible they can steal your information/identity.”

Your Unsecure Social Security Number

A stolen Social Security number allows a criminal to use your identity to apply for credit or a mortgage, use your health insurance, and even use your identity if he’s arrested. So why do so many organizations continue to ask for your SSN when they don’t really need it? They do it out of habit and because it’s convenient. Even though they were never intended to be used as universal identifiers, Social Security numbers are the most commonly used record-keeping number in United States. They’re linked to your bank account, credit, where you live and work, and much more. To make matters worse, the unsecure ways SSNs are stored and transmitted make them the prime target of identity thieves.

Consider these shocking statistics:

  • 39% of adults who have used public WiFi said they have accessed or transmitted sensitive information while using it; and 8% said they have sent an email with sensitive information such as a Social Security number or an account number, according to a 2014 Harris Poll conducted for PRIVATE WiFi.
  • Consumers who had their Social Security number compromised in a data breach were five times more likely to be a fraud victim than the average consumer, according to the 2013 Javelin Strategy & Research Identity Fraud Report.
  • 10% of children have had their Social Security numbers used by someone else, a rate 51 times higher than that of adults, according to a 2011 Carnegie Mellon University CyLab study.

When it comes to asking for Social Security numbers, what’s legally required is far different from what’s become common practice. According to the Social Security Administration, people must provide it for tax returns, federal loans, financial institutions, employers, government programs, credit applications and credit reporting, and for the Department of Motor Vehicles. Hospitals and medical professionals often ask for your SSN because they want to use it to track you down if you owe them money.

But they can’t legally require you to provide it.

Public utilities also can’t demand your Social Security number. They have other ways of verifying your identity. And you don’t have to hand over your child’s Social Security number to schools or youth athletic teams.

How to Safeguard Your SSN

The Better Business Bureau advises consumers not to enter their Social Security number online or give it out in an email or over the phone. It offers these tips for consumers when they are asked for their Social Security number:

  • Ask under what law the SSN is required. What will happen if you don’t share it?
  • Ask if there are other forms of identification that are acceptable, or whether you can use the last four digits of your Social Security number.
  • When interviewing for a job with a recruiter or temp agency, find out whether you can give your SSN directly to a potential employer.
  • Ask what steps are taken to protect your personal information: How will it be stored and secured, and who will have access to the data?

If you must enter your Social Security number online, make sure you’re using a secure connection and your security software is up-to-date. If you’re on a WiFi hotspot, which is inherently unsecure, the best way to protect your SSN is to use a VPN like PRIVATE WiFi. VPNs send your sensitive information through a secure tunnel that’s invisible to identity thieves.

Remember, you’re the person most responsible for protecting your Social Security number. The best way to do that is to limit the number of entities that have access to it. Over 13 million Americans were victims of identity fraud in 2013 – one every two seconds. Make sure it doesn’t happen to you.

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Jan Legnitto

Jan Legnitto is an investigative journalist and documentary producer who writes about criminal justice and intelligence issues. Jan is also a frequent contributor to the Private I blogs.