If you're looking for a new job, getting a background or credit check or filling out insurance paperwork, there's a good chance you'll be asked for your Social Security number. These days, most people are aware of the dangers of allowing their Social Security number to fall into the wrong hands – identity thieves can use this information to open up lines of credit and rack up bad debt, leaving you to clean up your credit history, which can be a long and difficult process.
Stephen Ebbett, president of Protect Your Bubble, a lifestyle insurance brand, explains, "By federal regulations, state driver licensing organizations no longer use Social Security numbers as driver license numbers, and many companies – realizing that they'll be liable in case of a data breach – are now less likely to ask for and store your number." However, there's a good chance some employers will ask you to list your Social Security number when you apply for jobs. Here are Ebbett's tips to help you keep your number safe:
1. Don't provide your information until it is necessary. Once an employer is ready to offer you a job, they have legitimate reasons for wanting your Social Security number, including for background screening purposes. If you're hired, you'll have to provide your number for tax purposes, of course. However, you can choose to keep your numbers private until you know you're being considered for a job.
2. Make sure your connection is secure. "Only you can decide whether or not you're comfortable sharing your number as a candidate on an online application, but if you do, make sure you're using a secure connection (look for a padlock symbol) and that your encryption and antivirus software is up to date," Ebbett reminds job seekers.
3. Ask why your number is needed and how it will be stored. It's appropriate to ask to how the company plans to use your Social Security number and to inquire about how the company stores it. "Background screening companies or medical offices you visit for a pre-employment checkup may have systems in place to protect your data, but it doesn't hurt to ask. If nothing else, it shows you're aware of the dangers and puts the service provider on notice that you value your privacy and security," Ebbett says.
4. Memorize your number so you don't have to carry your card. "One of the top ways thieves gain access to Social Security numbers is by stealing wallets or purses that contain Social Security cards," Ebbett notes. If you're starting a new job or applying for one in person at a new company, you may have to show your card as evidence that it's a valid number issued in your name. If so, make sure you remove your card and store it in a secure place as soon as you are done with the verification process.
5. Avoid writing your Social Security number on a form with other identifying data. An identity thief who accesses your Social Security number can find out all kinds of information about you, including where you live, your spouse's name, what kind of car you own and much more. If you fill out a form that has a lot of identifying information PLUS your Social Security number, you'll make it that much easier for an identity thief to capitalize on your data. "If your number is truly required, ask if you can write it on a separate piece of paper that will be destroyed later," Ebbett suggests.
6. Address data breaches quickly. During a job hunt or any other time when you use your Social Security number, it's a good idea to stay on the lookout for unusual credit activity. If you suspect your number has fallen into the wrong hands, consider placing a fraud alert on your credit reports by calling one of the three major credit bureaus (TransUnion, Equifax and Experian). Ebbett suggests: "Prior to a job search, you may want to consider getting identity theft protection so that you'll have a recovery plan and expert help in place before an identity theft."
Miriam Salpeter is a job search and social media strategist, speaker, résumé writer and owner of Keppie Careers. She is the author of three books: Social Networking for Business Success, Social Networking for Career Success and 100 Conversations for Career Success. Quoted by CNN, The Wall Street and Forbes, among other outlets, Miriam teaches job seekers and entrepreneurs how to incorporate social media tools along with traditional strategies to reach their goals.