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When Should You Provide Your Social Security Number?

September 22, 2016

These days it seems like everyone wants to know your Social Security number, or SSN. Whether you’re applying for a job, visiting a doctor, enrolling your child in school, visiting the DMV, or applying for a credit card, you’re likely going to be asked to hand over that unique and highly valuable personal identifier.

Should you provide your SSN? Are you being overly cautious to worry about it? And are you being unreasonable if you refuse to give a company your SSN?

Let’s tackle those questions one by one. Yes, you should provide your SSN … sometimes. When you’re applying for a loan or a new credit card, for instance, you’ll need to provide your SSN so they can run a credit check. Same goes with applying for government benefits, from unemployment to Medicare, and when you go to the DMV. There are a few other instances too, like if your children receive state or local government services, such as reduced-fee lunches, or when you complete a cash transaction totaling more than $10,000.

Now, when it comes to requests that aren’t related to credit or government services—like healthcare-related requests—you can opt out. An organization can respond by saying they won’t do business with you because maybe they want to use your SSN to track you in their system or to find you if you fail to pay a bill, but their request isn’t mandatory. You can simply walk away.

A tougher situation occurs when you’re asked to supply your SSN online as part of a job application. If that happens, try to contact the employer and ask about providing a hand-delivered application.

Regarding the second question, you’re not being overly cautious at all. In fact, you should worry about protecting your SSN, which can be used by criminals to apply for credit cards, loans, or mortgages in your name, as well as to wire money from your bank accounts. Given those concerns and the difficulty of acquiring a new SSN, the real question is why more people don’t worry about protecting their SSN.

As to the final question, no, you are not being unreasonable if you opt out—assuming you do so in a polite way. You can simply overlook the request on a form, and you may not be questioned. Or you can ask why your SSN is needed and how it will be used; many times, you’ll be told that it’s not mandatory. And you can bet that you won’t be the first person to ask.

Here’s a flyer with more information about SSN theft and what to do if it happens to you.

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