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The Resource Center Identity Theft & Protection | post

When is a request for a Social Security number reasonable or when does it invite the theft of identity?

by Steve Schwartz on

The other day I read a story in the Los Angeles Times that posed an interesting fact situation regarding the possible theft of identity.

It seems a reader had moved and when he considered cable television providers he contacted DirecTV, thought they offered a good product at a price he was willing to pay, and so he started the application process.

In the course of taking his application he was asked to give his Social Security number (SSN). This brought the signing up process to a halt.

The reader thought this was a totally unreasonable request - one that opened him up to possibility of theft of identity, so he refused to give his Social Security number, and when the company said it could not process his application without it, he ended the transaction and contacted the newspaper with his outrage over what he considered an unwarranted request by DirectTV.

But the company gave its side of the story to the Times.

Robert Mercer, a DirecTV spokesman, said the company has a good reason for wanting people’s Social Security numbers. He said DirecTV spends an average of $890 installing a dish on each new customer’s roof and providing other equipment and incentives, and thus needs to get a sense of people’s finances.

"We’ve been scrupulously doing credit checks for years," he said. "We want to ensure that we’re bringing on good-quality, creditworthy customers who can pay their bills."

Given all we hear almost daily about identity theft, and the advice we are constantly being given about guarding our Social Security numbers, we naturally question every time we are asked for it. We must judge whether the request is legitimate, or whether we are opening ourselves to the possibility of theft of identity.

This DirecTV story is a perfect example. On its face the request might not have seemed reasonable, but when explained it seems wholly reasonable.

Perhaps the problem was the sales person taking the order did not fully explain why the Social Security number was needed. Had he or she should have explained that the company was actually granting the new subscriber credit, and had to determine his credit worthiness. The only way that could be done was by pulling a credit report and for that they needed his SSN because that is the way that the credit bureaus' identify us.

What makes our Social Security numbers valuable to identity thieves is that it acts as an identifier by the credit bureaus. The Social Security Administration did not want its SSN to become a national identification number and it is most unhappy that defacto that is what it has become. But that seems to be the system we are stuck with, and so now we must constantly walk a fine line between guarding our personal information and giving it out for the very legitimate reason of credit granting.

I often give the advice that you should closely guard you and your kids SSNs unless there is a real need by those asking for it. If your medical insurance carrier uses it to identify you then your physical has a need for it. If Federal student loan programs identity applicants using a SSN then your children's colleges need theirs if they are applying for Federal aid. If you are asking for credit or being asked to show your credit worthiness, then you will have to provide your SSN if a credit report is going to have to be pulled.

The trick is to understand why you are being asked to provide a SSN and to understand if the request is reasonable.