What Should You Do When Someone Wants Your Social Security Number?

Note to Employer - To help with the increasing problem of identity theft, we are providing the following information for you to share with your employees about when one should give someone their Social Security number.

With increasing incidents of identity theft, more attention is being focused on the use of Social Security numbers. Many people do not realize the importance of Social Security numbers and what can happen when their number gets into the hands of the wrong people. Do you know when you are required to give someone your Social Security number? Here are a few guidelines to help you decide.

Your Social Security number is your personal property. If a friend asks to borrow your car, don't you want to know how it will be used? It's the same with your Social Security number. To begin with, giving your number is voluntary, just like letting someone borrow your car. Before you give your number, you should ask:

" why your number is needed,

" if giving your number is mandatory or voluntary, how your number will be used,

" what happens if you refuse, and

" what law requires you to give your number.

The answers to these questions can help you decide. The decision is yours.

One place you will need to use your Social Security number is when you do business with Social Security. Did you know that more than 400 million Social Security numbers have been assigned since 1936, and that many people have the same name? So, when you contact Social Security, we will ask for your full name and Social Security number. We need your Social Security number because we:

" keep our records based on each person's Social Security number,

" use your number to look up the information we have about you- a record of your earnings, a record of the benefits we pay you, or other personal information about you such as medical records,

" may have trouble finding your information and be unable to answer your questions or provide you with your information if you don't give us your Social Security number.

You need to give your Social Security number to your employer when you start a job because your employer is required to submit a report to Social Security of how much you earn. Sometimes we find that the employee's name and Social Security number the employer gives us do not match the information in our files. When this happens, we cannot give the employee credit for the money earned. This can be a problem for employees, because it can affect the amount of their future Social Security benefits when they retire or become disabled.

When this happens, we send a letter to your employer pointing out that your name and Social Security number do not match the information we have on file. Sometimes, numbers are reversed or your name is misspelled. That is easy to fix. Contact Social Security, and we will help you fix the mistake.

But if you are using someone else's number to work, this will cause you a problem. If this is intentional, you are violating the Social Security Act and you can be imprisoned and fined. Additionally, the Internal Revenue Service can penalize employers if they submit incorrect names and numbers. Correcting records can be expensive for employers, so they usually try to have accurate payroll records. Once again, it is your responsibility to make sure your employer has accurate information about you.

What happens when other people ask for your Social Security number? The Privacy Act says that no federal, state, or local government agency may deny you any right, benefit, or privilege under the law because you refuse to give your Social Security number unless:

" disclosure of your number is required by Federal law, or

" disclosure of your number is required under a law or regulation in effect before September 1, 1975, the implementation date of the Privacy Act.

For example, if you apply for certain assistance under government programs such as Medicaid or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a federal law requires you to provide your number to the agency that administers the program. The Privacy Act requires any federal, state, or local government agency requesting your Social Security number to tell you:

" if the disclosure is mandatory or voluntary,

" what law or other authority requires your number, and

" how your number will be used.

To help you make a decision, get as much information as possible. You should ask the "why, how, and what" questions. If you are not comfortable with the answers, you still can refuse to give your number. But, in this case, the federal, state, or local government office can refuse to give you the service you are requesting.

Why do businesses and other organizations think they can ask for your number? Unfortunately, using Social Security numbers is thought to be the easy way to keep records. There is no law that prevents businesses from asking for or using your number. And, we cannot control why or when others may use your number once you give it to someone. When a business or organization asks for your number, you can refuse to give it, but you may not get the service you requested. This is another time when you have to ask the "why, how, and what" questions about your Social Security number and decide if the answers provide you and your Social Security number the protection you expect. If not, you can decline to give your number, but the businesses and organizations can refuse to give you the service. Once again, the decision is yours.

For example, you buy an insurance policy and the company asks for your number. Now is the time to ask the questions. If it turns out that they need your number for their recordkeeping, you may ask if they have another way to identify you in their records, and refuse to give your Social Security number. People don't usually ask for an alternative identification number, but many businesses and organizations can accommodate this request.

While you are responsible for giving out your number, we, too, are responsible for your property-your Social Security number. We take this responsibility very seriously. Sometimes we are required by law to give your information to another government agency, or your information is needed by Social Security or another government agency before you can get health or welfare services.

There may be times when we may not issue you a Social Security number as quickly as you want us to, but this is because we want to keep your number safe. For example, if you need a Social Security number for a child age 1 or older and the child never had a number, we must see the child's birth record. Because of the heightened awareness of identity theft, we will check with the office that issued the record before we assign a number. This may take several weeks. Birth records are public documents some people fraudulently use to establish new identities and get Social Security numbers. Since the child is not using the number, many years go by before the identity theft is discovered.

One more thing, you also can keep your Social Security number safe by not carrying your Social Security card in your wallet or purse.

Having a Social Security number is a big responsibility, and we share that responsibility with you. Keeping your number safe and secure takes work, and we are working with you so no one else can get or use your number without your permission. SSA


Page Revised January 13, 2003
Text from the SSA/IRS Reporter, Winter 2002