August 14, 2013

Editorial: Identity protection


---- — It’s rare that a day goes by when we don’t read about Social Security number theft and misuse and the financial chaos that usually results to the unwary number holder.

The bottom line is this: Be careful not to give out your Social Security number to anyone, and don’t carry your Social Security card on your person — ever.

But there’s a lot of confusion about when consumers are legally required to provide a Social Security number and when they’re not.

According to the Better Business Bureau, utilities, financial institutions and private businesses use Social Security numbers for identity verification and filing systems, purposes for which the numbers were never intended.

Social Security numbers can be obtained through data breaches, theft, online and telephone scams, stolen mail, wallets or purses, unsecured Internet sites, business records or papers at home or in the trash. They can also be purchased from someone who has access to personal information at a business.

A stolen Social Security number enables a criminal to create a new identity, apply for credit or a mortgage and even use the victim’s identity if arrested.

According to the Social Security Administration, consumers are obliged to provide their number for tax returns and federal loans, credit applications, government programs, financial institutions, employers and the Department of Motor Vehicles. The numbers are also required to obtain reports through credit-reporting companies.

That said, consumers are often asked for their Social Security numbers by physicians, dentists, potential employers, temp agencies, pawn shops and even schools. Some retailers might ask for the number, too.

While there is no legal requirement to provide your Social Security number, no law prevents the aforementioned from refusing to do business with you if you refuse to provide that information.

Here are some guidelines the Better Business Bureau advises consumers use when asked to provide their Social Security numbers for other than legal purposes:

▶ Ask under what law the number is required.

▶ Find out what alternative methods of identification are acceptable, such as a driver’s license or the last four digits of your Social Security number.

▶ In the case of employment recruiters or temp agencies, find out whether you may give your numbers directly to the potential employer.

▶ Determine who will have access to this data.

▶ Ask what steps are taken to protect your personal information.

Another important point: Never enter your Social Security number online or give it over the phone or in an email.

And finally, be wary any time someone asks for any personal-identification information. It’s for your own protection.