My Social Security Number - How Secure Is It?

Posted: Jun 01 1993  | Revised: Aug 29 2018  

  1. Introduction
  2. Federal Government Use of Social Security Numbers
  3. State and Local Government Use of Social Security Numbers
  4. Business Use of Social Security Numbers
  5. Can I Change My Social Security Number?

1. Introduction

Social Security numbers (SSNs) are key pieces of personally identifiable information that potentially may be used to perpetrate identity theft. Identity thieves seek SSNs so they can assume the identity of another person and commit fraud. It’s relatively easy for someone to fraudulently use your SSN to assume your identity and gain access to your personal information. Identity thieves also can establish new credit and bank accounts in your name, or use your SSN for employment purposes or to obtain medical care. 

 

Therefore, it’s wise to limit access to your SSN whenever possible. Unfortunately, your SSN is often saved in numerous databases which may be subject to compromise by hacking or other means.  Data breaches involving the compromise of SSNs are a frequent occurrence.

 

2. Federal Government Use of Social Security Numbers

The federal government uses SSNs as unique identifiers for many purposes, including employment, taxation, benefits, and law enforcement.  The federal government may collect your SSN for many purposes including:

  • Filing your tax return
  • Filing for student financial assistance
  • Filing for housing assistance
  • Obtaining food stamps
  • Obtaining Medicaid assistance

The Privacy Act of 1974 requires all government agencies that request SSNs to provide a disclosure statement on the form. The statement explains whether you are required to provide your SSN or if it’s optional, how the SSN will be used, and under what statutory or other authority the number is requested. The U.S. Office of Management and Budget, Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs provides guidance and oversight regarding the Privacy Act.

The Privacy Act of 1974 states that you cannot be denied a government benefit or service if you refuse to disclose your SSN unless the disclosure is required by federal law, or the disclosure is to an agency that has been using SSNs before January 1975, when the Privacy Act went into effect. There are other exceptions as well.

 

If you are asked to give your SSN to a government agency and no disclosure statement is included on the form, you should complain to the agency and cite the Privacy Act of 1974. Unfortunately, there appear to be no penalties when a government agency fails to provide a disclosure statement.

 

3. State and Local Government Use of Social Security Numbers

Some state and local government agencies, including tax authorities, welfare offices, and state Departments of Motor Vehicles, can require your SSN. Others may request the SSN, leading you to believe you must provide it.  Carefully read any government form requesting your SSN to see if you must provide it.

 

Under the Real ID Act of 2005, states must require proof of a person’s SSN (or verification that the person is not eligible for an SSN) when issuing a driver's license.  However, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 prohibits states from displaying your SSN on driver's license, state ID cards, or motor vehicle registrations.

Federal law authorizes states to collect your SSN for many additional purposes including:

  • Applying for public assistance
  • Issuing a birth certificate (parents' SSN)
  • To determine juror eligibility
  • Child support
  • Death records

The Privacy Act of 1974 requires that any state or local government agency that requests an SSN from an individual do three things:

  • tell individuals whether disclosing their SSNs is mandatory or voluntary
  • cite the statutory or other authority under which the request is being made
  • state what uses the government will make of the individual’s SSN.

4. Business Use of Social Security Numbers

SSNs are often used in the private sector as a means to authenticate the identity of individuals seeking financial or other transactions.  Except in those few situations where your SSN is required by federal law (see below), you are not legally compelled to provide your SSN to private businesses. There is no law, however, that prevents businesses from requesting your SSN, and there are few restrictions on what businesses can do with it. But even though you are not legally required to disclose your SSN, the business does not have to provide you with service if you refuse to release it. So in a sense, you are strong-armed into giving your SSN.  Here are some tips if a business requests your SSN:

  • If a business insists on knowing your SSN when you do not see a reason for it, we encourage you to speak to a manager who may be authorized to make an exception or who may know whether company policy requires it.
  • You can ask if there is an alternate number that you can provide to the company, such as your driver's license number. Also ask if you can provide a deposit rather than giving your SSN to the company.

Federal law requires private businesses to collect your SSN in certain situations.   A business must collect your SSN when (1) you are involved in a transaction in which the Internal Revenue Service requires notification, or (2) you are engaged in a financial transaction subject to federal Customer Identification Program rules.

SSNs are required on transactions in which the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) may be interested. That includes most banking, stock market and other investments, real estate purchases, many insurance documents, and other financial transactions as well as employment records.

Financial institutions are also required by federal law to participate in Customer Identification Programs (CIPs). Banks must keep records of identifying information and check customer names against terrorist lists. This applies to anyone who opens a new account. The CIP Rule does not require financial institutions to report your dealings to the government.

 

Medical insurance.  The company or government agency providing your medical insurance may ask you to provide your SSN.

  • MediCal and Medicare are government health plans and can require an SSN for enrollment.
  • If you are covered by group insurance through your employer, a Mandatory Insurer Reporting Law (Section 111 of Public Law 110-173) requires insurers to report SSNs to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for both subscribers and covered dependents.  This information is used to coordinate Medicare payments with other insurance benefits. However, there is no language in Section 111 itself that mandates collection or reporting of all SSNs to Medicare. Medicare requires only that insurers send the Medicare ID numbers of Medicare beneficiaries, and that they take appropriate steps to ensure that they tell Medicare about all the Medicare beneficiaries they also provide coverage for.

Credit applications. Credit card applications usually request SSNs. Your number is used primarily to verify your identity in situations where you have the same or a similar name to others. Most credit card issuers will insist on having your SSN. But in rare cases, you may be able to find a credit issuer who will provide you credit without knowing your SSN, especially if you are persistent and can provide other forms of identification.

 

5.  Can I Change My Social Security Number?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) will issue a new number only in certain very extreme cases.  A new SSN may be issued if you can prove that someone has stolen your number and is using it illegally. You must provide evidence that the number is actually being misused, and that the misuse is causing you significant harm on an ongoing basis. If your card has been lost or your number has fallen into the wrong hands, that's not enough. Further, SSA will not give you a new SSN to aid in avoiding legal responsibility, or in hiding bad credit or a criminal record.

SSA may also assign a different number if:

  • Sequential numbers assigned to members of the same family are causing problems
  • More than one person is assigned or using the same number
  • There is a situation of harassment, abuse or life endangerment

To get a new Social Security number, you must visit an SSA office.