What to do when they ask for your Social Security Number
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What to do when they ask for your Social Security Number by Chris Hibbert Computer Professionals 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 don't like. Short History 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 The Privacy Protection Study Commission of 1977 recommended that the Executive Order be repealed after some agencies referred to it as their authorization to use SSNs. I don't know whether it was repealed, but that practice has stopped.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. Private Organizations 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 numbers. 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 is. 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 987-65-4329. 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 August. 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.