Picture a scenario: You're at a Walmart and a salesperson peddling cable and high-speed internet asks if you’d like to save some money. They're wearing the properly branded gear and presenting an attractive offer. Then they ask you for your Social Security number (SSN) to see if you qualify for the special price on the internet package. You might pause and wonder if this salesperson is legit or part of a Social Security number scam, potentially using your information to steal your identity.
Situations like this are becoming increasingly common, as some companies and organizations routinely ask for your Social Security number. But just because someone asks for your information doesn't mean that you should give it to them—even if they insist that it's required.
Learn how to tell when you should share your Social Security number and when you should keep it to yourself. Avoid giving out your information unnecessarily and you can help protect yourself from identity theft and the financial and emotional stress that comes with it.
When You Must Provide Your Social Security Number
Legally, you are required to provide your Social Security number to some government agencies for specific purposes. For example, the Privacy Act of 1974 allows the Department of Motor Vehicles to require applicants to share their Social Security number in order to receive a driver's license, while state social service agencies are allowed to require applicants to do so in order to participate in programs like SNAP.
However, when requesting your Social Security number, government agencies are required to provide you with a disclosure statement. This statement must clarify:
- Whether providing your Social Security number is mandatory or voluntary
- What law requires you to provide your information to the agency
- How the agency will use your information
You will also have to provide your Social Security number any time you apply for credit, whether it's a credit card, bank account, utility service, or mortgage. Employers may also ask you for your Social Security number when they hire you for a job. In both cases, your information will be used to verify your identity.
Some employers will ask for your Social Security number on a job application. You are allowed to decline, but you may lose the job opportunity if you do so.
When You May Decline to Provide Your Social Security Number
Lots of other organizations may ask for your Social Security number. These include schools, doctors' offices, and private businesses. There is no law prohibiting private companies from asking for your Social Security number—or from denying service if you decline to provide it.
The Social Security Administration advises using caution when sharing your information with companies that aren't legally required to collect it, so think twice before rattling off your number.
How to Decline Giving Out Your Social Security Number
Giving out your Social Security number for non-credit-related requests is purely optional, and learning how to gracefully say no can save you from potential identity theft. After all, the more places that have your information, the more opportunity there is for thieves to get to it.
To check on information about your Social Security number, always make sure you are using the only the official website of the U.S. Social Security Administration. It will have a .gov extension, which only official government agencies can use.
The good news is that politely declining is easier than you might expect. Try the following options:
- Leave the space blank. Most of the time, you can get away with simply not filling out the Social Security number field on the form. The person handling the paperwork may not pursue it.
- Ask questions. If they insist, a good strategy is to ask, “What happens if I don’t give you my Social Security number?” They may relent when asked for justification.
- Offer alternative methods of identification. Often, a driver’s license number or state ID number may work. Both provide positive ID without revealing your Social Security number.
In most instances that don't require a credit check, these tactics will prove sufficient. Keeping yourself safe in a digital world where everybody wants your information can be tough, but you can minimize the risk by being careful.