Seventy-nine years ago today, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law, birthing that most important government program and, as a result, a coveted prize of identity thieves: your Social Security number.
You know why you need to guard your SSN like an amped-up Rottweiler: In the wrong hands, it’s the quickest and arguably most common way for an ID thief to pose as you to open credit accounts and get medical care, your tax refund, even a job.
If your SSN was ever misused, we feel your pain (real or potential). But take heart that it wasn’t 078-05-1120, which has the dubious honor of being the single most misused SSN in history – metaphorically swiped some 40,000 times over four decades.
Here’s why: In 1938 an executive of a wallet manufacturer thought it’d be a good idea to show how nicely the newly issued Social Security cards fit into a new line of his company’s wares, to be sold at Woolworth. So in each wallet he inserted a fake card – half the size, printed in red (versus blue) and with “specimen,” to distinguish it from the real McCoy.
What wasn’t fake: the actual SSN of his secretary, Hilda Schrader Whitcher. Although the Social Security Administration soon deactivated it and issued her a new one, as of 1943 at least 5,700 people had misused her SSN as their own. As late as 1977, at least a dozen people were still spoofing the SSN “issued by Woolworth,” the SSA reports.
What isn’t known is if any of those 078-05-1120 wannabes ever used Hilda’s SSN for fraudulent financial gain. (In those early days SSNs were not used for credit and there were few opportunities to benefit financially, other than to collect Social Security benefits.)
These days, even though actual SSNs can’t be used in advertising (by wallet manufacturers or others), you never want to unwisely “advertise” your nine digits. A refresher course on basic protection:
*Don’t carry your Social Security card in your wallet. Unless you’re going to an SSA office, keep it safely locked away. A lost or stolen wallet is a common route to ID theft. Rather than carry around your Medicare card – which likely has the same identifying digits as your SSN - make a photocopy and blacken or cut out some digits (but bring the original for doctor appointments). Even without a photocopy, you’ll still get emergency medical care.
*Never reveal your SSN (along with credit card numbers or other personal information) over the phone unless you initiate the call to a verified phone number and/or have a trusted, established business relationship with that organization. The same applies to calls or in-person requests from strangers, such as those offering “free” health checkups or supplies, or unexpected correspondence allegedly from the government that’s not delivered via the U.S. Postal Service.
*When asked for your SSN on forms, leave it blank (usually). It’s required on forms related to taxes and federal loans; by employers, banks and lenders; by the U.S. Treasury, for savings bonds and government programs such as welfare and workers’ compensation; and for stock and property transactions.
But others who ask for your SSN - e.g., insurers, landlords, hospitals and medical offices, utility companies - usually request it to run a credit check, which can be done without those digits. So ask why your SSN is needed, how it’s secured and if an alternative can be used. If you are told by the requesting entity that it’s needed for “verification,” ask the organization if you can provide an alternative number, such as your birthdate, ZIP code or a portion of your driver’s license, rather than the commonly used last four digits of your SSN.
*Know the riskiest places. Based on data breaches in past years, studies reveal that the most dangerous places to give your SSN to include universities (so tell the kids), banks and financial institutions, hospitals, government agencies (state, local and federal, in order of risk), medical supply businesses, nonprofits, tech companies, and health insurers and medical offices.
*Check for misuse. Because some of the above require your SSN (and simply because it’s good practice), get free copies of your credit report at www.annualcreditreport.com from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion (one each per 12-month period) to check for fraudulent accounts. Also check your Social Security earnings statement each year for signs of fraud.
*To help minimize risk of identity theft, consider a fraud alert or credit freeze.
For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud, and gain access to a network of experts, law enforcement and people in your community who will keep you up to date on the latest scams in your area.
Also of Interest
- Latest and ‘Greatest’ Facebook Scams
- Social Security Changes in 2014
- Fight fraud and ID theft with the AARP Fraud Watch Network.
- Join AARP: savings, resources and news for your well-being
See the AARP home page for deals, savings tips, trivia and more.