SSN FAQ: Private requests for your SSN
by Chris Hibbert
last modified March 3, 2001
- Requests from Private Organizations for your SSN
The guidelines for dealing with non-governmental institutions are much more tenuous than those for government departments. Most of the time private organizations that request your Social Security Number can get by quite well without your number, and if you can find the right person to negotiate with, they'll willingly admit it. The problem is finding that right person. The person behind the counter is often told no more than "get the customers to fill out the form completely."
Most of the time, you can convince them to use some other number. Usually the simplest way to refuse to give your Social Security Number is simply to leave the appropriate space blank. One of the times when this isn't a strong enough statement of your desire to conceal your number is when dealing with institutions which have direct contact with your employer. Most employers have no policy against revealing your Social Security Number; they apparently believe that it must be an unintentional slip when an employee doesn't provide an SSN to everyone who asks.
Employers are required by the IRS to get the SSNs of people they hire. They often ask for it during the interview process, but there are good reasons to refuse if you can afford to argue with the potential employer. Some of them use the SSN to check credit records, to look for criminal history, and otherwise to delve into your past in areas you might object to. Tell them you'll give them your SSN when you accept their offer. They have no legitimate use for it before then.
At one point I needed a security badge from a company that wasn't my employer (my employer was contracting to the host.) The host company used SSNs to do background checks on applicants for security badges. I asked if there was a way I could keep my SSN out of their database, and we worked things out so I gave my number directly to the person who ran the background check, and he used it for that and then destroyed it. I may have been the only person working at this very large company who didn't have an SSN on file.
Public utilities (gas, electric, phone, etc.) are considered to be private organizations under the laws regulating SSNs. Most of the time they ask for an SSN, and aren't prohibited from asking for it, but they'll usually relent if you insist. See the other suggestions in the section on What You Can Do To Protect Your Number.
Banks and various others are required by the IRS to report the SSNs of account holders to whom they pay interest. If you don't tell them your number you will probably either be refused an account or be charged a penalty such as withholding of taxes on your interest. Most banks will refuse to open safe deposit boxes without a SSN, though there is no direct governmental requirement that they collect it. One correspondent reported that he was able to open a non-interest bearing account at a US bank by presenting a passport and international driver's license. (This correspondent implied that it was a US passport. You can get an international driver's license at AAA.)
Many banks send the names, addresses, and SSNs of people whose accounts have been closed for cause to a company called ChexSystem. ChexSystem keeps a database of people whose accounts have been terminated for fraud or chronic insufficient funds in the past 5 years. ChexSystems apparently doesn't believe they are covered by the Fair Credit Reporting Act, as I had earlier reported. A few people have reported complete intransigence on the part of Chexsystems, while others (who apparently received cooperation from their banks or credit unions) have been able to get Chexsystems to add annotations to their records that are accessible with assistance from the consumer. You can send a letter to ChexSystems (Consumer Relations, 12005 Ford Road, Suite 650, Dallas, TX, 75234) if you need to deal with them.
Many Banks, Brokerages, and other financial institutions have started implementing automated systems to let you check your balance. All too often, they are using SSNs as the PIN that lets you get access to your personal account information. If your bank does this, write them a letter pointing out how common it is for the people with whom you have financial business to know your SSN. Ask them to change your PIN, and if you feel like doing a good deed, ask them to stop using the SSN as a default identifier for their other customers. Some customers will believe that there's some security in it, and be insufficiently protective of their account numbers. Nearly every financial institution I have asked has been willing to use a password I supplied. (Fidelity was the exception. I no longer have any funds there.) I don't know why they don't advertise this rather than relying on the SSN.
Sometimes banks provide for a customer-supplied password, but are reluctant to advertise it. The only way to find out is to ask if they'll let you provide a password. (This is reportedly true of Citibank Visa, for instance. They ask for a phone number but are willing to accept any password.)
When buying (or refinancing) a house, you have to give your SSN, because the bank is required to report the interest you pay. Most banks will now ask for your Social Security Number on the Deed of Trust. This is because Fannie Mae (who used to be the Federal National Mortgage Association) wants it. The fine print in their regulation admits that some consumers won't want to give their number, and allows banks to leave it out when pressed. [It first recommends getting it on the loan note, but then admits that it's already on various other forms that are a required part of the package, so they already know it. The Deed is a public document, so there are good reasons to refuse to put it there, especially since all parties to the agreement already have access to your number.]
No laws require private medical service providers to use your Social Security Number as an ID number. They often use it because it's convenient or because your employer uses it to identify employees to its group's health plan. In the latter case, you have to get your employer to make an exception to their standard practices. Often, the people who work in personnel assume that the employer or insurance company requires use of the SSN when that's not really the case. When a previous employer asked for my SSN for an insurance form, I asked them to find out if they had to use it. After a week they reported that the insurance company had gone along with my request and told me what number to use.
Insurance companies often require the SSN for underwriting purposes, but don't usually use it for underwriting personal property or personal auto insurance policies. You may be able to get them to leave the number out of their data base, even if they want to use it when deciding whether to cover you. They may call every few years to ask for it again.
Insurance companies share information with one another that they have collected while evaluating applications for life, health, or disability insurance. They do this by sending the information to an organization called the Medical Information Bureau. The information they share includes test results and brief descriptions of conditions relevant to health or longevity. MIB rules prohibit the reporting of claims information. The MIB doesn't use the SSN as an identifier in their files, and doesn't report SSNs when providing reports. You can get a copy of your MIB file by writing to Medical Information Bureau, P.O. Box 105, Essex Station, Boston, MA 02112. Their phone number is (617)426-3660.
If an insurance agent asks for your Social Security Number in order to "check your credit", point out that the contract is invalid if your check bounces or your payment is late. Insurance is always prepaid, so they don't need to know what your credit is like, just whether your check cleared.
Some insurance companies pay interest. (This includes some life insurance policies, as well as property and casualty policies issued by mutual insurance companies.) In these cases, they'll let you know that the consequence of not providing your SSN is that they'll be required by the IRS to withhold 31% (currently) of their interest payments. You can decide whether that's worth it. (Thanks to Janelle Downey for reminding me of this fact.)
Blood banks also ask for the number but are willing to do without if pressed on the issue. After I asked politely and persistently, the (non-Red Cross) blood bank I go to agreed that they didn't have any use for the number. They've now expunged my SSN from their database, and all the receptionists seem to know how to get by without the number.
The Red Cross has also changed their policies and will now invent an alternate number for you if you don't want to use your SSN. It may still be the case that some receptionists don't know about the new policy, but if you are persistent there is likely to be someone at each office who does know what to do.
Blood banks have changed their policies back and forth a few times in the last several years. When the AIDS epidemic first hit, they started using SSNs to identify all donors, so someone who was identified as HIV-positive at one blood bank wouldn't be able to contaminate the blood supply by donating at a different site. For a few years, they were a little looser, and though they usually asked for SSNs, some would allow you to donate if you provided proof of your identity. (I showed a Driver's license, but didn't let them copy down the number.) Now the Federal Government has declared blood banks to be "manufacturers" of a medical product, and imposed various Quality Control processes on them.
The Blood bank I go to now asks for SSNs, and if you refuse, allows you to give a Driver's License number. I balked at that, since I hadn't had to give it before. They let me donate, but while I was eating cookies, the director of Quality Control came down and talked to me. After a little bit of discussion, she was satisfied to have me pick an ID number that I promised to remember and provide when I visisted again. So, once again, if you want to protect your SSN and your privacy, it pays to push back when they ask.
Landlords often request SSNs from prospective tenants. There are two things they usually want it for: a credit check, and in some parts of the country, landlords apparently have access to a database of "bad tenants" as reported by other landlords. There don't seem to be any laws restricting the use of these kinds of database, which leaves renters in a precarious situation. If a landlord makes a mistake, or a prior tenant gave an incorrect number, the prospective tenant may be unable to find out why no landlord will rent to him or her. The applicant can refuse to supply the number, but in a seller's market, the landlord often has many other applicants to choose from. There aren't many avenues of recourse, except to politely inquire if the landlord will accept a letter of reference from a previous landlord or if there are other ways that you can demonstrate your creditworthiness. The tenant is almost powerless if the landlord doesn't want to go along.
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- Chris Hibbert, 1195 Andre Ave., Mountain View, CA 94040
Last modified May 01, 2005 05:41 PM