But those nine digits were originally intended to track our income for Social Security and tax purposes -- not to become a universal identifier for everything we do.
"I mean every time you look up, there's your Social Security number scribbled on something," says Seattle resident Delena Mitchell.
Someone used Mitchell's number to steal thousands of dollars and ruin her credit.
Bellevue Community College student Kevin Corning faces similar problems, since someone has his college I.D., which has his Social Security number on the front.
"Students' identity number is their Social Security number," he says.
'I Just Don't Put It There'
But Mary Ann Traynor, who works for the Social Security Administration, says it's a lot easier to decline to give out your number than you think.
Traynor says she refuses to disclose her number all the time.
"When I get a form, even when I go to the doctor, and it asks for my Social Security number, I just don't put it there," she says. "And then when they ask me about it I explain to them my reasons for it."
Doctors and dentists want it. Many utility companies want it. Phone companies want it. Even some video rental stores want it.
But take a look at the law.
Privacy Act Of 1974
Under the Privacy Act of 1974 , it's illegal for a government agency to deny benefits or privileges if you refuse to disclose your Social Security number, unless disclosure is required by law.
"If they tell you it's mandatory," says Doug Honig of the American Civil Liberties Union in Seattle, "ask them what federal law they can cite saying it's mandatory, and then ask them what it's going to be used for."
The state Department of Licensing, for example, now requires your Social Security number to get your driver's license. That's mandatory, because of a federal law that forces states to get that number to help track child support deadbeats.
The same law now applies to hunting and fishing licenses, and to any license required for your line of work, such as a hair dresser, a bus driver, architect or massage therapist.
As for everyone else who wants your Social Security number to do business?
"There's no law that says they can't ask you," says Traynor. But there's also no law that says you can't politely say no -- or at the very least, get them to change how they use your number, like on your health plan card.
Call Your Health Plan
In fact, the health care industry is moving to a new numbering system for your medical and insurance records, but that could take years.
Here's something you can do right now:
Call your health plan administrator and ask to be given a generic number.
"I called Premera Blue Cross," says Katie Mitchell, mother of identity theft victim Delena, "and they -- I mean, two minutes -- and she told me she could give me a dummy number and as a matter of fact, right at this moment, they're sending me new cards."
Most health plans do it, but you have to ask, and you have to notify everyone of the change to avoid mix-ups.
"Your doctor, your hospital, your pharmacists and all the people that those people work with, such as the laboratories that your dentists uses, the laboratory that your doctor uses" -- that's who needs to be notified, say Jeff Robertson, Chief Medical Officer at Regence BlueShield.
Here's another option: Since your employer has to know about that change, start a campaign at work and get your employer to change those numbers for you.
- Go after your bank. If it uses your Social Security number as an account identifier, get it to change it.
- If your student I.D. number is your Social Security number, get it changed.
- You don't have to disclose your number to get new utility service. Most utilities will take extra proof of identification instead.
- Companies that sell airtime for mobile phones want your personal number to check your credit, but many will accept a deposit instead. Ask.
- And don't put your Social Security number on job applications. Experts say that's mandatory only after you accept the job.
"Because it's not just a matter of giving out a number -- it's a matter of giving away personal information," says Traynor.
So be persistent. if you're still carrying your Social Security number in your wallet, stop.
And don't be afraid to speak up when someone wants your number. Politely ask why it's needed, and ask about other options.
The more you get the message across that you don't like giving your privacy away, the more you can force changes.
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