Protect your SSN, protect your identity

Since the Social Security system was established, the SSN (Social Security Number, or just “social” to many clerks and telephone operators) has slowly crept its way into becoming the de facto national ID number in the US. For better or for worse, this means that when the Social Security system is abolished due to insolvency, the SSN system will then be coded into law as the national ID number system.

Since the SSN is unique, it is used as a database key whenever information about an individual needs to be aggregated. Since the SSN is obscure, supposedly known only to the individual, the government, and businesses the individual has done business with, it is also used as a password or as a secondary form of identification.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, businesses are the weak link in this system. State and local governments who have a SSN on file will routinely hand it out to anyone who appears to be a reputable business. Businesses will sell your personal information, including SSN, to anyone who is willing to pay enough, even if you have signed a contract to the contrary. You can sue, but then what? How can you prove damages? How do you prevent further downstream dissemination? Once your SSN is copied beyond your sphere of trust, you can very well assume that it is in the wrong hands, and obtaining a new SSN involves convincing the SSA that you have suffered enough stalking and/or identity theft to justify a new SSN, convincing the three credit bureaus to give you a clean slate, and convincing those that the thief has defrauded that you are in fact not the thief. The SSN and your usual personal information (name, address, phone number) is all that is necessary for an unscrupulous individual to order a credit report from the credit bureaus, and using the information there as a kit he can impersonate and defraud you.

When you are dealing with a government that is not the federal government (the federal government is required by law to obtain your SSN for any transaction), or any business or individual, and they ask for your SSN, you should counter by asking them why they need to know your SSN. This is not suspicious behavior, but it is annoying to many clerks. Ignore their annoyance; you have a right to know why they need your SSN. For example, it is likely that the request is legitimate if the request is pursuant to some federal regulation or subsidy such as federal housing, because the federal government uses your SSN as its internal ID number. If they continue to balk, tell them that your identity has been stolen in the past and you would like to know if there is any way you can avoid giving them your SSN.

Unfortunately, thanks to the PATRIOT Act’s assaults on liberty and privacy, opening a bank account requires you to disclose your SSN along with your date of birth and address of residence, even though non-US citizens can use a passport to establish their identity.

Your state driver’s license bureau may want to put your SSN on your driver’s license. Find out if the SSN is required by law, and if not, don’t give it to them; ask them to generate a driver’s license ID number for you. Sometimes you are in a catch-22 situation here; you are moving to another state, and some utility or rental company in the destination state gives you a choice between SSN or state driver’s license; unfortunately, there is no way for you to obtain a driver’s license in that state until you can supply proof of residence at the supplied address in that state. Ask if they will accept a passport instead.

Your SSN is the key to the credit bureau databases, so it will be required whenever someone needs to do a credit or background check on your behalf.

Your SSN is also used as a key for insurers to perform legal and prior insurer background checks on you.

Using a state driver’s license number or a passport number is advantageous because both of those documents contain other information that cannot be as easily replicated.

When NOT to give out your SSN simply because it is requested:

  • When establishing a new periodically billed account with a business. They will claim that they need to run a credit check. Instead, offer to pay a deposit.
  • When the business needs to be assured that you are who you say you are. Offer to use a state driver’s license instead, or to fax several forms of photo ID including a passport.
  • When the business needs a unique identification number (i.e. for their database). Offer to use a state driver’s license or passport number instead.

If the business insists on obtaining your SSN without a federal regulatory excuse, it is your choice to do business with them or to take your business elsewhere. Unfortunately, certain monopolies such as utilities and cable/telephone companies do not respond to market pressure. And if you are applying for credit, you have to remember that the onus is on you to provide the creditor with a reason why they should lend to you. Remember that it reasonable to ask whether your personal information will ever be transferred to a third party. You can’t record this conversation legally unless the company agrees (which they won’t), so the best thing you can do is get a written assurance that your personal information, including your SSN, will be kept confidential. The company will still share it without your permission when it finds a business case to do so, leading to your SSN being disseminated, but at least this way you can pursue action against the company in small claims, and encourage others to do the same — since it is likely that if your information was shared, then others’ information has also been.

It seems obvious by now that the best way to protect your SSN and still be able to do business in the US is to avoid requiring credit whenever possible.

Unfortunately, using a debit card without being physically present (such as online) is a bad idea. Debit card fraud cannot be reversed. But if you want to obtain a credit card to use for online purchases only, even a “secured” credit card where you pay a deposit up front is still considered credit and will require a credit check. There does not seem to be any way to safely purchase goods online without divulging your SSN to somebody along the line.

  • Maintain a positive cash flow from employment and investment so that a credit check is never required.
  • Use a debit or ATM card instead of credit cards.
  • Write “Check ID” on the back of the debit card. If your bank allows you to, disable using the debit card as an ATM card or getting cash back.
  • Carry the ATM card with you when you need access to more cash than you can safely carry with you. Carry the debit card only when traveling out of your bank’s ATM service area.
  • Even if you don’t drive, obtain a state driver’s license that does not use your SSN as the driver’s license number. To obtain this, you will need an existing passport or birth certificate as well as some proof of residence at the given address, the level of which varies state by state.
  • Use your birth certificate — which should always be stored in a location where the only avenues of access besides through yourself would lead to its destruction — and state driver’s license to obtain a federal passport, the strongest form of photo identification.

When your business is rejected because you refuse to disclose your SSN (whether on grounds of identity protection, philosophical or practical objections to a citizen ID number), you should write a letter to the company letting them know that their policies gave you a choice between putting your identity, finances, and credit at risk by doing business with them, or to do business with a competitor who is respectful of your privacy instead, and that you chose the latter.

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