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Social Insecurity

The keystone of American identification is that all-important social security number. Because you can't (legally) work in the U.S. without one, it has been adopted as the de facto identifier for all matters financial. It's used by the government to identify you for tax and retirement purposes, by your employer, and by national credit agencies that assess your creditworthiness.

At the heart of keeping your identity safe is keeping your SSN safe. Here are a few tips to help make sure that your SSN doesn't fall into the wrong hands:

  • Don't carry your Social Security card. Only your employer and a few government agencies will ever need to see your actual Social Security card, so don't keep it in your wallet. Keep it at home, in a safe place. Should you ever lose your wallet or purse, you won't have to worry about replacing your actual Social Security card or having it fall into the wrong hands.

  • Don't give out your social security number. Very few organizations need to know your SSN. You must provide it to your employer, and some government agencies, or if you are applying for credit (because credit agencies use it to track you). However, if some other business, such as a health insurance company, asks for your SSN, ask that they use your driver's license number or another nine-digit number instead.

  • TIP

    With life insurance, however, you might be need or want to use your SSN on your policy, to simplify processing for your estate or executor(s).

  • Don't put your SSN on your driver's license. At one time, most states used SSNs on driver's licenses. Now, most don't, and even those that do will usually allow you to use an alternative number. Take them up on it.

  • Don't print your SSN on your checks. Never preprint your checks with your SSN or your driver's license number. Your ID number can be written down if necessary, but preprinting it allows anyone who handles your checks—from the clerk at the store through the bank processing chain—to view your identifying numbers.

Remember, your SSN is like identity currency. Don't give it away—be stingy with it.

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