What to do when they ask for your Social Security Number
by Chris Hibbert
for Social Responsibility
Many people are concerned about the number of organizations asking for
their Social Security Numbers. They worry about invasions of privacy
and the oppressive feeling of being treated as just a number.
Unfortunately, I can't offer any hope about the dehumanizing effects
of identifying you with your numbers. I *can* try to help you keep
your Social Security Number from being used as a tool in the invasion
of your privacy.
Surprisingly, government agencies are reasonably easy to deal with;
private organizations are much more troublesome. Federal law
restricts the agencies at all levels of government that can demand
your number and a fairly complete disclosure is required even if its
use is voluntary. There are no comparable laws restricting the uses
non-government organizations can make of it, or compelling them to
tell you anything about their plans. With private institutions, your
main recourse is refusing to do business with anyone whose terms you
Social Security numbers were introduced by the Social Security Act of
1935. They were originally intended to be used only by the social
security program, and public assurances were given at the time that
use would be strictly limited. In 1943 Roosevelt signed Executive
Order 9397 which required federal agencies to use the number when
creating new record-keeping systems. In 1961 the IRS began to use it
as a taxpayer ID number. The Privacy Act of 1974 required
authorization for government agencies to use SSNs in their data bases
and required disclosures (detailed below) when government agencies
request the number. Agencies which were already using SSN as an
identifier were allowed to continue using it. The Tax Reform Act of
1976 gave authority to state or local tax, welfare, driver's license,
or motor vehicle registration authorities to use the number in order
to establish identities. The Privacy Protection Study Commission of
1977 recommended that the Executive Order be repealed after some
agencies referred to it as their authorization to use SSNs. I don't
know whether it was repealed, but that practice has stopped.
Several states use the SSN as a driver's license number, while others
record it on applications and store it in their database. Some states
that routinely use it on the license, will make up another number if
you insist. According to the terms of the Privacy Act, any that have
a space for it on the application forms should have a disclosure
notice. Many don't, and until someone takes them to court, they
aren't likely to change.
The Privacy Act of 1974 (5 USC 552a) requires that any federal, state,
or local government agency that requests your Social Security Number
has to tell you three things:
1: Whether disclosure of your Social Security Number is required or optional,
2: What law authorizes them to ask for your Social Security Number, and
3: How your Social Security Number will be used if you give it to them.
In addition, the Act says that only Federal law can make use of the
Social Security Number mandatory. So anytime you're dealing with a
government institution and you're asked for your Social Security
Number, just look for the Privacy Act Statement. If there isn't one,
complain and don't give your number. If the statement is present,
read it. If it says giving your Social Security Number is voluntary,
you'll have to decide for yourself whether to fill in the number.
The guidelines for dealing with non-governmental institutions are much
more tenuous. Most of the time private organizations that request
your Social Security Number can get by quite well without your number,
and if you can find the right person to negotiate with, they'll
willingly admit it. The problem is finding that right person. The
person behind the counter is often told no more than "get the
customers to fill out the form completely."
Most of the time, you can convince them to use some other number.
Usually the simplest way to refuse to give your Social Security Number
is simply to leave the appropriate space blank. One of the times when
this isn't a strong enough statement of your desire to conceal your
number is when dealing with institutions which have direct contact
with your employer. Most employers have no policy against revealing
your Social Security Number; they apparently believe the omission must
have been an unintentional slip.
Lenders and Borrowers
Banks and credit card issuers are required by the IRS to report the
SSNs of account holders to whom they pay deductible interest or when
they charge interest and report it to the IRS. If you don't tell them
your number you will probably either be refused an account or be
charged a penalty such as withholding of taxes on your interest.
Many Banks, Brokerages, and other financial institutions have started
implemenenting automated systems to let you check your balance. All
too often, they are using SSNs as the PIN that lets you get access to
your personal account information. If your bank does this to you,
write them a letter pointing out how many of the people you have
financial business with know your SSN. Ask them to change your PIN,
and if you feel like doing a good, ask them to stop using the SSN as a
default identifier. Some customers will believe that there's some
security in it, and be insufficiently protective of their account
When buying (and possibly refinancing) a house, most banks will now
ask for your Social Security Number on the Deed of Trust. This is
because Fannie Mae (FNMA?) recently started requiring it. The fine
print in their regulation admits that some consumers won't want to
give their number, and allows banks to leave it out when pressed. [It
first recommends getting it on the loan note, but then admits that
it's already on various other forms that are a required part of the
package, so they already know it. The Deed is a public document, so
there are good reasons to refuse to put it there, even though all
parties to the agreement already have access to your number.]
Insurers, Hospitals, Doctors
No laws require medical service providers to use your Social Security
Number as an ID number. (except for Medicare, Medicaid, etc.) They
often use it because it's convenient or because your employer uses it
to certify employees to its groups health plan. In the latter case,
you have to get your employer to change their policies. Often, the
people who work in personnel assume that the employer or insurance
company requires use of the SSN when that's not really the case. When
my current employer asked for my SSN for an insurance form, I asked
them to try to find out if they had to use it. After a week they
reported that the insurance company had gone along with my request and
told me what number to use. Blood banks also ask for the number but
are willing to do without if pressed on the issue. After I asked
politely and persistently, the blood bank I go to agreed that they
didn't have any use for the number, and is in the process of teaching
their receptionists not to request the number.
Why use of Social Security Numbers is a problem
The Social Security Number doesn't work well as an identifier for
several reasons. The first reason is that it isn't at all secure; if
someone makes up a nine-digit number, it's quite likely that they've
picked a number that is assigned to someone. There are quite a few
reasons why people would make up a number: to hide their identity or
the fact that they're doing something; because they're not allowed to
have a number of their own (illegal immigrants, e.g.), or to protect
their privacy. In addition, it's easy to write the number down wrong,
which can lead to the same problems as intentionally giving a false
number. There are several numbers that have been used by thousands of
people because they were on sample cards shipped in wallets by their
manufacturers. (One is given below.)
When more than one person uses the same number, it clouds up the
records. If someone intended to hide their activities, it's likely
that it'll look bad on whichever record it shows up on. When it
happens accidentally, it can be unexpected, embarrassing, or worse.
How do you prove that you weren't the one using your number when the
record was made?
A second problem with the use of SSNs as identifiers is that it makes
it hard to control access to personal information. Even assuming you
want someone to be able to find out some things about you, there's no
reason to believe that you want to make all records concerning
yourself available. When multiple record systems are all keyed by the
same identifier, and all are intended to be easily accessible to some
users, it becomes difficult to allow someone access to some of the
information about a person while restricting them to specific topics.
What you can do to protect your number
If despite your having written "refused" in the box for Social
Security Number, it still shows up on the forms someone sends back to
you (or worse, on the ID card they issue), your recourse is to write
letters or make phone calls. Start politely, explaining your position
and expecting them to understand and cooperate. If that doesn't work,
there are several more things to try:
1: Talk to people higher up in the organization. This often works
simply because the organization has a standard way of dealing
with requests not to use the SSN, and the first person you
deal with just hasn't been around long enough to know what it
2: Enlist the aid of your employer. You have to decide whether
talking to someone in personnel, and possibly trying to change
corporate policy is going to get back to your supervisor and
affect your job.
3: Threaten to complain to a consumer affairs bureau. Most
newspapers can get a quick response. Some cities, counties,
and states also have programs that might be able to help.
4: Tell them you'll take your business elsewhere (and follow through
if they don't cooperate.)
5: If it's a case where you've gotten service already, but someone
insists that you have to provide your number in order to have
a continuing relationship, you can choose to ignore the
request in hopes that they'll forget or find another solution
before you get tired of the interruption.
If someone absolutely insists on getting your Social Security Number,
you may want to give a fake number. There is no legal penalty as long
as you're not doing it to get something from a government agency or to
commit fraud. There are a few good choices for "anonymous" numbers.
Making one up at random is a bad idea, as it may coincide with
someone's real number and cause them some amount of grief. It's
better to use a number like 078-05-1120, which was printed on "sample"
cards inserted in thousands of new wallets sold in the 40's and 50's.
It's been used so widely that both the IRS and SSA recognize it
immediately as bogus, while most clerks haven't heard of it. It's
also safe to invent a number that has only zeros in one of the fields.
The Social Security Administration never issues numbers with this
pattern. They also recommend that people showing Social Security
cards in advertisements use numbers in the range 987-65-4320 through
The Social Security Administration recommends that you request a copy
of your file from them every few years to make sure that your records
are correct (your income and "contributions" are being recorded for
you, and no one else's is.) The statute of limitations for getting
corrections without either an "obvious error on the face of the
record" or good proof of earnings is 3 Years, 3 months and 15 days.
The reason for this (the 3 years, not the 3 months and 15 days) seems
to be that details are only kept for earnings in the last 3 years and
older earnings are lumped together. Call the Social Security
Administration at (800) 772-1213 and ask for a "Request for Earnings
and Benefit Estimate Statement".
Some Legal Cases Currently (1/9/91) Pending
CPSR has recently joined two legal cases concerning Social Security
Numbers and privacy. One of them challenges the IRS practice of
printing Social Security Numbers on mailing labels when they send out
tax forms and related correspondance. The other challenges Virginia's
requirement of a Social Security Number in order to register to vote.
Dr. Peter Zilahy Ingerman filed suit against the IRS in Federal
District Court in 1991, and CPSR filed a friend of the court brief in
The Virginia case was filed by a resident of the state who refused to
supply a Social Security Number when registering to vote. When the
registrar refused to accept his registration, he filed suit. He is
also challenging the state of Virginia on two other bases: the
registration form apparently lacked a Privacy Act notice, and the
voter lists the state publishes include Social Security Numbers.
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