EVERYBODY WANTS it. Your bank, health club, utility company. Sometimes even the guy at the video store.
That nine-digit number which started as a way for the Social Security Administration to track worker's earnings and benefits now is routinely requested by all sorts of businesses and groups.
"This is not supposed to be a national identification number ... but that's what it has become," said Cheryl Hystad, executive director of the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition.
A Social Security number legally must be divulged in limited situations, but for many years, consumers readily rattled off their numbers to anyone who asked. With the rise of identity theft, it has become clear a Social Security number is the key to your finances and much more. If it falls into the wrong hands, the culprit can assume your identity and establish accounts in your name.
Consumers can protect themselves by controlling when they give their number. That can mean politely refusing to disclose a number when there's no legal reason to do so or even walking away from doing business with a company that won't take 'No' for an answer.
"You have a lot more power than you realize," said Scott Ksander, assistant technology professor at Purdue University.
Ksander, for instance, said the utility company demanded his Social Security number when he recently reported that his gas meter was damaged by a storm. Ksander resisted, and the utility relented.
The first Social Security numbers rolled out in late 1936. In 1961, Congress permitted the Internal Revenue Service to use the numbers to identify taxpayers. Besides those two agencies, you must also provide it to those required to collect income and tax-related information on behalf of the IRS. That includes banks and financial institutions that give interest income information to Uncle Sam and employers that report earnings and Social Security taxes.
As part of a federal law in the mid-1990s to improve collection of child support, states require Social Security numbers on license applications, whether it's for hunting and fishing, marriage and driving or professional licenses. And as a result of the Patriot Act of 2001, banks must verify the identity of new customers and most do so by using Social Security numbers, said John Hall, a spokesman with the American Bankers Association.
In 1974, Congress limited the use of the numbers by federal agencies because of privacy concerns, but the law didn't apply to private businesses or states, experts said. The use of Social Security numbers became widespread, appearing on driver's licenses, insurance cards, student IDs and even gym memberships.
Today, it's not just businesses that crave the number, but schemers developing all sorts of ways to weed the information out of consumers. Most recently, the federal courts warned about bogus phone calls accusing people of shirking jury duty while trying to extract their Social Security numbers.
Once a number is obtained by those intent on fraud, the damage can be swift.
Angela Butler of Dayton in Howard County said her teenage daughter's identity was stolen two years ago by a trio of thieves who had pilfered her purse containing her driver's license and paycheck with her Social Security number on it.
Butler said she became aware of the identity theft about two weeks later when an $877 bill arrived for cell phones and monthly calling plans. After getting her daughter's credit report and digging further, Butler discovered that two $25,000 Chevy trucks had been purchased in the 18-year-old's name. It took nearly a year to clear up the problem, Butler said. "We were lucky. If I hadn't caught it, we might not even know today unless my daughter went to buy something of value," she said.
In the light of high-profile security breaches at companies this year, several bills are pending in Congress, mostly dealing with security issues, experts said. Proposals include requiring consumers to be notified if they are at risk of identity theft because their personal information has been breached and allowing them to "freeze" access to their credit reports to new creditors.
States have been more active in protecting privacy, consumer advocates said. In 2003 and 2004, state legislatures introduced a 549 privacy-related bills dealing with Social Security numbers, according to StateScape, which tracks legislation. Already this year, 403 bills have been introduced.
A new Maryland law that takes effect next year, modeled after a California law, will limit what businesses can do with Social Security numbers. Businesses, for instance, won't be able to publicly post the numbers or print them on cards necessary for accessing products and services. Hystad, of Maryland Consumer Rights, said the legislation doesn't go far enough because it doesn't prevent companies from asking for the number.
But that's where consumers can take control. If businesses ask for your Social Security number and have no legal reason to do so, tell them you are concerned about identity theft and don't want to divulge it, said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego.
Turn the tables. Ask why they need it and how the information would be used. Some businesses won't insist. If one does, ask if another number could be used, such as a driver's license, Givens said. (States have been moving away from using Social Security numbers on licenses, and those that still do generally give motorists the option to switch to another number, experts said.)
Major credit bureaus ask for a Social Security number when consumers request a credit report. Evan Hendricks, editor of Privacy Times newsletter, recommends giving the number to the bureaus, since they generally have it and are using the number for authentication purposes.
Be prepared, though, for companies deciding not to do business with you if you don't give them the information they want.
"You can say 'No' to the landlord at the apartment you want, and the employer whose job you want and the cell phone company that has the phone you want," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. "But there you are left without a job, apartment and no way to call and complain.