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When are Social Security numbers required?

ConsumerMan Herb Weisbaum answers more readers questions about who can ask for a Social Security number and when they should be revealed.

I previously wrote about why a medical office would require a Social Security number, but readers reacted with a slew of more questions regarding that coveted piece of identification. Nan in Oregon wants to know who else can ask for it, Jerry in New York wonders if he could be discriminated against if he doesn't reveal his Social Security number, and one reader may have just been duped into giving it out.

You wrote about giving out Social Security numbers at doctors’ offices. Who else can ask for this information?
Nan, Ashland, Ore.

Any business can request your Social Security number, but that doesn’t mean you are legally required to give it to them. Here’s the problem: Social Security numbers were never meant to be a personal identifier, but they’ve become just that. Ed Mierzwinski, Consumer Programs Director at U.S. PIRG, points out that “there is no law that prevents a business from discriminating against you or not doing business with you, if you do not provide the requested information.”

There are certain times when Social Security numbers must be used. This is not a complete list, but here are some of the major situations when they are required:

  • Most financial transactions
  • Employment records
  • Tax returns (federal and state)
  • Medicare benefits
  • Contact with the Social Security Administration
  • Applications for a hunting, fishing or other recreational license.

Some states have their own requirements for providing Social Security numbers. For instance, in Washington you must list your Social Security number the first time you apply for a driver’s license. Federal law (The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004) prohibits states from displaying your Social Security number on your license or vehicle registration forms, but they can still collect this information.

Because the Social Security number has become a personal identifier, you will need to use it for many other transactions -- basically anything that involves a credit check or background check. A potential landlord or prospective employer will probably request it. And anyone lending you money or extending credit will need it.

“We really are in a terrible situation today with the abuse and overuse of Social Security numbers,” says Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. “Just try getting a credit card or insurance without providing your Social Security number,” Givens says. “You’ll also need it to get a professional license and to apply for college.”

You may even be asked to provide your Social Security number when starting utility or cable service. Before you give it out, ask if you can provide some other form of identification, such as your driver’s license number. They may be willing to accept it if you prepay the first month’s bill, which is the law in California. For people who live in other states, you may need to talk to a supervisor to make this happen. A driver’s license number is much less useful to an identity thief than a Social Security Number.

I’d like to know why credit card companies want my SSN. You must give it to them or you cannot open an account. I only give my number to companies that will pay me interest; not vice versa.
-- Judy R., Chicago, Ill.

The bank or store issuing a card wants to check your credit history to see what sort of credit risk you are. They’ll also want your credit score to set the initial interest rate. If you have a good credit score you’ll get a lower interest rate than if you have a bad score. This may not seem fair, but it’s how the system works. You may be able to find a bank that will give you a card without requiring your Social Security number -- if you provide other identification –- but I don’t know of one.

Can you refuse to provide a Social Security number on an employment application? Could this be a form of discrimination?
Jerry C., Rochester, N.Y.

You aren’t required to provide your Social Security number, but there’s a very good chance you’ll eliminate yourself from consideration if you do not. The potential employer probably wants to do a background check on you and that’s easier to do with your Social Security number. Asking for this information is not a form of discrimination.

During a routine traffic stop, the officer looked at my driver’s license and then requested my Social Security number? Why would he need that and do I have to give it to him?
-- (Name withheld) Kirkland, Wash.

I contacted a couple of police departments and was told there are several reasons why an officer might ask for a Social Security number, and they all involve making a positive identification. This can happen if you have a common name, if the officer believes you are giving false information, or if the police computer indicates there’s a warrant out for your arrest. The officer will want to use a second form of identification (your Social Security number) before making an arrest. In these situations, if you decided not to provide the requested information, you could find yourself in the back of a patrol car headed to the police station.

Recently Verizon Wireless wanted my Social Security number before I could get cell phone service. I refused. Can they do this to me? Should I sue them?

Yes, they can do this. No, you shouldn’t sue them. Verizon wanted your Social Security number in order to do a credit check before giving you service. This is a common practice in the cell phone industry because they are extending you credit, allowing you to make calls each month and run up charges before your bill arrives. Verizon Wireless spokesperson Georgia Taylor says there is another option. “You can go with a pre-paid phone that lets you buy a specific number of minutes in advance,” she says. With these pay-as-you go plans, the phone company does not need to check your credit, so you don’t have to provide your Social Security number.

I called the toll-free “opt-out” number to stop the avalanche of unsolicited credit card offers I get in the mail. I was asked to leave my Social Security number on an answering machine. I am very leery about giving my Social Security number to anyone and now machines are asking for this information. What a joke. I will contact the credit bureaus via U.S. mail.
-- Andrea A.

I understand your concern and I know this seems rather strange, but this is actually how the opt-out program works. The major credit bureaus run this program that lets you make one phone call to stop most pre-approved credit offers. The number is 1-888-5-OPTOUT   (1-888-567-8688). Because the credit bureaus identify you via your Social Security number, you need to give them that number if you want to opt-out.

Even if you write, you’ll have to give them your Social Security number. I think as long as you initiate the call to this opt-out line, it is not any riskier than sending that information in writing. By the way, I called the opt-out line many years ago and saw the credit card solicitations drop dramatically after just a few months.

One downside to this program: it won’t stop the hotels and airlines you do business with from sending pre-approved credit card applications. I find that highly annoying. I get mail I don’t want and it increases my chances of being the victim of identity theft. I wish these travel companies would join the opt-out service and respect my wishes to not get these unsolicited offers.

I recently purchased something over the Internet and used my credit card. They asked me for the last four digits of my Social Security number. Is this common or am I being set up?

This sounds very strange. You do not need to provide your Social Security number or any part of it when using a credit card and I cannot see any reason why a merchant would need this information in order for you to make a purchase. Jay Foley at the Identity Theft Resource Center says they’ve heard about this and advise people that “no legitimate companies are doing this.” Chances are you’re being set up for some sort of scam or identity theft.

Call your credit card issuer right away and have the account closed. You should also contact the big three credit bureaus and put a fraud alert on your credit file. If you live in a state that lets you put a security freeze on your credit file, I would do that. You might want contact the at 858-693-7935 where a real human can give you some help with this.