Protecting Your Social Security Number

Many Americans know little about the laws that dictate the legitimate and illegitimate uses of their Social Security numbers. Evan Hendricks, author of Credit Scores and Credit Reports and editor and publisher of Privacy Times, talks to Michele Norris about what to do if your Social Security number is stolen.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

When Social Security numbers were first introduced in 1936, they were intended to be used solely for tracking individuals in the Social Security program. How things have changed. Today, they are the most common recordkeeping device in the U.S., used to track everything including health records, financial data, voter registration, employment files and the list goes on.

To find out more about how Social Security numbers are used and misused, we're joined Evan Hendricks. He's the author of Credit Scores and Credit Reports and he's also editor and publisher of Privacy Times. He joins us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Good to talk to you again, Evan.

Mr. EVAN HENDRICKS (Editor and Publisher, Privacy Times): Thank you.

NORRIS: We just heard some worst-case scenarios. How worried should all those veterans be?

Mr. HENDRICKS: Well, they should be concerned. There's no reason to panic but the sad reality is, if one of the thieves who has the laptop computer or someone he sells it to wakes up and realizes they're sitting on a goldmine, the shelf life of a Social Security number is your life. And they can use it now or anytime in the future to commit identity theft and take out credit in somebody's name.

NORRIS: The database also includes more than just the Social Security number. There's date of birth, other personal information. Is that enough for someone to engage in identity theft? To, for instance, set up an account in someone's name?

Mr. HENDRICKS: Yes, you can set up an account. You can try and hack their way into the checking account by using a pretext call to a bank. Or most importantly, you can apply for credit in someone's name by just having the exact Social Security number. Date of birth will help, too. But then they'll disregard the fact that you're at a completely different address and still disclose the credit report to the credit grantor that's holding the application of the thief.

NORRIS: So all you really need is that Social Security number? You don't need the mother's maiden name or some other information?

Mr. HENDRICKS: No, they don't require that much matching as long as the Social is exact and it's the key to unlocking disclosure of your credit report.

NORRIS: Well, since the Social Security numbers are already out there and, you know, who knows where, what can all those veterans do to protect themselves?

Mr. HENDRICKS: The very first thing, the veteran should take advantage of new laws that are in about 12 states right now that allows them to freeze disclosure of their credit reports, because that stops the key moment. Now a lot of vets aren't going to be living in those states, but I'm encouraging all of them to ask the credit bureaus to freeze their reports anyway, because what are the credit bureaus going to say? Thanks for risking your life for our country but no, we can't freeze your credit report? They can do it. So that's the first thing.

The other thing is, they want to monitor their credit reports. They have a right, a free right to a credit report. And now they have a right to two free credit reports, one under the federal law and one because they're victims of identity theft, or possible victims. And when you get that, look at the inquiry section. It's the last section of the credit report and that tells you who's pulled your credit report and why. And so if you live in the Washington, D.C., area and some car dealer in Texas is pulling your credit report, that's a red flag that says you need to go into action, contact that car dealer and tell him it's not you.

NORRIS: And Evan, is the key there to monitor your report over and over again? Don't just pull that report once?

Mr. HENDRICKS: Right. You have a new part-time job. It's going to go on for many years because of the long life of a Social Security number.

NORRIS: Now, can we just take a step back. How commonly are Social Security numbers used and how has that changed over time with new laws and regulations?

Mr. HENDRICKS: Well, the Social Security number started out just being for Social Security. Through Executive Orders and other things, all the bureaucracies saw, wow, this is like a wonderful number to use as an identifier. And so then it spread to driver's license agencies. At one point, 36 states were putting the Social on the driver's license. That's all changed. That's probably the best news.

But, you know, health insurers use it. Banks, you have to give it to banks. Of course, employers have to have it. But then things like health clubs are using it. Hospitals are demanding it. Insurance companies. Those are not required under law to take it and you don't have to give it to them, but it's hard to say no if they're insisting on taking it from you.

NORRIS: Well, before we let you go, when can you refuse to give up your Social Security number?

Mr. HENDRICKS: You have to give it to the bank for interest, and you have to give it to employers and you have to give it to government agencies.

NORRIS: Including the VA?

Mr. HENDRICKS: Including the VA. They had no choice in the situation. That's why this is such an outrage. But you don't have to give it to your insurance company. You don't have to have it be your student ID at the university. You have to give it to your health club, but sometimes you have to go mano-to-mano to make sure that they don't get it from you.

NORRIS: Thanks, Evan.

Mr. HENDRICKS: Okay.

NORRIS: Evan Hendricks is author of Credit Scores and Credit Report. He's also editor and publisher of Privacy Times. And at our website, NPR.org, you can take a quiz to assess how vulnerable you might be to identity theft, and you can also learn about ways to protect your Social Security number.

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Identity Theft IQ Test

The following identity theft IQ test, provided courtesy of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse Web site, helps people assess the risk of their identities being stolen:

I receive several offers of pre-approved credit every week (5 points).

Add 5 points if you do not shred them.

I carry my Social Security card in my wallet (10 points).

My driver's license has my Social Security number on it (10 points).

I do not have a post office box or locked, secured mailbox (5 points).

I use an unlocked, open box at work or at home to drop off my outgoing mail (10 points).

I carry my military ID in my wallet at all times (10 points).

I provide my Social Security number whenever asked, without asking questions about how that information will be safeguarded (10 points).

Add 5 points if you provide your number orally without checking to see who might be listening.

I am required to use my Social Security number at work as an employee ID or at school as a student ID number (5 points).

My Social Security number is printed on various documents frequently seen in the workplace, such as on time cards (10 points).

I have my Social Security number and/or driver's license number printed on my personal checks (10 points).

I am listed in a "Who's Who" guide (5 points).

I carry my insurance card in my wallet, and either my Social Security number or that of my spouse is on that card (10 points).

I have not ordered a copy of my credit report for at least two years (20 points).

I do not protect my discarded personal, credit and financial information from thieves by shredding them prior to putting them in the trash (10 points).

Each one of these questions represents a possible avenue for an identity thief.

Understanding Your Score:

If you scored 100 points or more you are at high risk for identity theft.

A score of 50-100 makes your odds of being victimized about average but higher if you have good credit.

A score of 0-50 points means you have a low risk of being an identity theft victim.

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