The quickest way to become a victim of identity theft is to let your Social Security number (SSN) fall into the wrong hands. That's why a group of employees are suing Union Pacific Railroad over the casual way the company used the numbers to ID workers--a practice that became a real issue in April when a computer with the names and numbers of 30,000 employees was stolen. In May someone made off with a laptop containing the SSNs of 26.5 million people on file at the Department of Veterans Affairs--which suggests that it's more important than ever to keep your number under wraps. A lot of groups ask for it; very few really need it. Just be ready for a fight. "You're going to be at loggerheads with those requesting it," says Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "You need to have a strong constitution."
DON'T USE YOUR SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER AT WORK
Employers need your Social Security number to pay you--but that doesn't mean they have to print it on your company badge or make it your log-in to access work schedules (one of the complaints in the Union Pacific case). With the rise in identity theft, companies, including UP, are starting to change their ways. Consider asking your personnel and IT departments to give you a different employee number. Citing stats on ID theft might help your case.
Financial institutions are the only group other than employers required by law to collect your SSN. But they too use it far more than necessary--to let you access accounts over the phone or online, for instance. Some banks use just the last four digits. "It's not totally safe, but it's safer," says Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of Privacy Journal. He suggests calling the bank and requesting a different password altogether.
SAY NO TO CREDIT-CARD ISSUERS
Credit-card companies want your Social Security number because it makes it easier for them to run a credit check. But they can do that with other information, such as your name and date of birth. If you're told you must supply your SSN, ask which law says that. You may have to go a few rounds--in writing is often best--before the credit company relents. And it might not: ultimately, it's up to the issuer whether or not to do business with you.
PLAY TOUGH AT THE DOCTOR'S
Doctors often say insurance companies require SSNs. Unless you're on Medicare or Medicaid, there should be a way around that. When Beth Givens' dentist insisted on taking her SSN, saying that his policy prevented people from skipping out on bills, she offered to pay cash up front. The stakes are high. According to the Federal Trade Commission, when a thief opens new accounts in a victim's name (easy to do with a SSN), it takes the victim an average of 60 hours and $1,180 to clean up the mess.
GIVE THEM SOMETHING ELSE
Any number of private businesses you deal with--utilities, cable companies, even video stores and gyms--will ask for your Social Security number. You always have a right to refuse. But unlike most government agencies, private companies are allowed to deny you service based on that refusal. A good strategy is to offer something in place of your SSN--a driver's license number, say, or a cash deposit. "That," says Smith, "is the trade-off."