Put Security Back in Social Security Numbers

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If you were born in the U.S., then you have one number that tells the story of your life.  No matter what year you were born in, where you live, how much you make, or what you do for a living this number follows you from the cradle to the grave.  So, you probably know by now that I am referring to your Social Security number. 

They say there is strength and security in numbers -and in many cases that's true. But, when it comes to your Social Security number, that isn't the case.

Years ago, these numbers epitomized security. Aside from your employer, only you and your spouse knew your number. Sure, on occasion it was turned over to one or two primary companies (usually a bank or hospital) and kept in a file, under lock and key, and securely guarded by a trustworthy employee. Those days are long gone.
An old Social Security card with the

Image via Wikipedia

Today, "security" has taken a backseat to "social."  Now, that your Social Security number is required on almost every sort of application, tracked virtually by nearly every company that you do business with, it's easy to see why it's commonly referred to as a "Social" - in the days of social networking, it does seem more fitting.

It is this realization that has caused the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) to urge Congress to help stop the abuse of excessive use of the SSN saying Americans need more stringent protections from identity theft and fraud.

We are a nation vulnerable to identity theft.  From young toddlers to seniors and everyone in between - no one is immune to the extensive harm that can be heaped on a life once that almighty 9 digit number lands in the wrong hands. Not even the deceased are immune to having their data stolen and used for profit by criminals who empty out spousal bank accounts or steal government benefits. The recent outbreak of data breaches demonstrates we have little control over our data - or when it's compromised. And when our SSN happens to be a piece of that data compromised by a hacker or stolen by a rogue employee, just as we can't un-ring a bell - we can't undo the fact that when our SSN ends up stolen, and often sold to multiple criminals, we may be facing multiple id theft incidents for many years to come.

The fact is we have the ability to verify an identity in a variety of different ways.  As a society, we pride ourselves on the ability to stay current with or ahead of the newest and latest in fashion, technology, and trends. Yet, we stick with a system that is outdated. To keep SSNs and identities safe from thieves, here are a few things that should be done by consumers and companies.

• Change our view of SSNs - There is an idea that with just the last 4 digits, we can prove who we are, and still protect our identity. The truth is the 4 digit system gives thieves the only part of your social that they couldn't figure out on their own. Social Security numbers are made up of 9 digits, the first 5 of which are generated based on the year and location of your birth. The only part of your SSN that's random is the last 4 digits. And, thanks to the new breed of crime dramas (as demonstrated in an episode of Numb3rs) this is common knowledge.

• Take advantage of technology for security's sake - Every day it seems there is a new gadget or new app designed to speed up our lives: it's great to have remotes that start autos, unlock doors and set DVRs, and phones that with a swipe deposit checks and act as digital wallets, but if we can do that, can't we also update the way we are identified without using the last 4 digits of our 'social'? If they can utilize technology for social -they can do it for security too.  

• Use common sense to create not so common security questions - Security questions are a good idea that just took a bad turn. When everyone uses the same questions and most of our answers could be found on Facebook or Twitter pages security went out the window. Companies must rethink the questions they use and standard questions should not exist. Consumers should be careful not to post personal info online that could crack answers to security questions.

• Stop the overuse of SSNs - Call me old-fashioned, but I don't believe that every school, pharmacy, doctor, dentist or business needs our SSN, not even the last 4 digits. Job applicants should not (and should not be asked to) provide this information until they have passed the qualifications phase and are offered a position. Initial background checks can be run without this information. And, for customer service situations, better security questions and pin numbers are just as good. 

• Support educational efforts to raise awareness to identity theft and scams - When it comes to id theft and scams, criminals are always ahead of our learning curve, and law enforcement resources. And that's dangerous because when it comes to fraud, what you don't know will hurt you. Kids and seniors are often a favorite target of thieves, as are businesses and the sensitive data they store. There is a real need for educating individuals of all ages, businesses and law enforcement officials on today's ever-evolving risks they may face, as well as the solutions they may find beneficial.

Unfortunately, the one number that can sum up our life is no longer privileged information - it's very "social" but not very "secure." As too many businesses and fraudsters alike consider those very important numbers to be their lock and key to our bank accounts -and our very lives, we need to revoke what's become an all-access-pass to identity, and instead place the focus on returning to the original intent- security

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When my daughter needed braces on her teeth the orthodontist's office asked for our SSN, and I said that I would not give that out . . . there was no need for them to have that information.

Consumers need to know when it is okay to say "NO! You don't need that information" to businesses. Your article helps to remind us that WE DO have the power to tell them that.

@shawn - The dentist may have asked because your healthcare might not have covered the braces, or you don't have dental. Braces can be very expensive and I'm sure he was looking for your SSN to run a credit report to see if you could afford them. Situations like that are a little bit different, but I would think twice before entering a SSN online anywhere.

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