En español | Q. Is it legal for companies to ask for my Social Security number before giving me service?
A. There's no law against it. And in most cases you're not legally required to provide it, but you could run the risk of being refused as a customer. Holding back your SSN can be especially tricky when applying for insurance or utility service.
Companies that want the number typically use it to check your credit history as a potential customer or to verify your identity. They may also want it in their records for future reference.
But they can often run a credit check based on another identifier you provide, such as your driver's license number. Or instead of providing your number, you can offer an upfront deposit to allay credit concerns.
Medical professionals may request your SSN to better predict whether you'll pay your bill, but they have another reason: If you die under their care, they are required to put your SSN on the death certificate. You can designate a family member to provide the number, should it ever be needed for that.
The bottom line: You should ask most companies requesting your SSN why it's needed, how it will be used and the consequences if you decline.
If the response is something about "company policy," you may fare better if you speak with a supervisor or manager to offer alternatives.
If you do decide to provide the number, it's a good idea to request that the company not use it as an identifier for you in their files, but substitute something less sensitive, such as your driver's license number.
But there are certain times when you do have to give your number. They include when you:
- Take a job (your employer will need it for wage and tax reporting).
- Get a driver's license.
- Apply for federal or state benefits.
- Pay more than $10,000 in cash for something. The law says that the party receiving the cash must report the transaction to the IRS, along with your name and number.
- Check your own credit history with the three main reporting bureaus, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. But this does not represent a security problem — the bureaus already have your number and they'll just use it to find your file.
- Call 1-888-5-OPT-OUT (1-888-567-8688) to cut off the flow to your mailbox of credit card offers and other solicitations. Again, it's fine to provide it. This toll-free line is shared by the three credit bureaus, which already have the number.
Also of interest: Protect your identity when your wallet goes missing. >>
Sid Kirchheimer writes about health and consumer issues.