McAfee, the antivirus company, recently made headlines when it released a study of the most dangerous places to use your Social Security number. The places were ranked based on the number of data breaches, where hackers break into computer systems and steal personal information, from January 2009 to October 2010. The results are disturbing.
What is most maddening is that these are exactly the kinds of institutions where we have no alternative but to give up our Social Security numbers to gain services. So what do we do when, say, standing in that line at university registration or on the phone with our financial institutions we're asked to cough it up?
First, ask the voice of Ye Olde & Hackable Institution if they really need your Social Security number. Are there other options? Name and address, or date of birth perhaps? Many types of businesses cannot, by law, require you to give up your SSN, so you might just have a call center employee seeking the shortest route to a finished call.
Secondly, never give your SSN or other information to anyone from anywhere who calls you. This could be a well-known scam where criminals pose as reputable institutions. If your bank does call you, ask them for a callback number and verify that it's legit online.
Also, never, ever carry your Social Security card in your wallet. This is a mistake college students make all the time. If that wallet is ever lost or stolen, that Social Security card is equivalent to a winning lottery ticket in the wrong hands of the wrong guy.
And finally, visit www.annualcreditreport.com to get a free copy of your credit reports from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion and make sure nothing is amiss. Then consider a credit and fraud monitoring service or a similar plan that will notify you of any unusual activity. Never forget that your identity is an important asset that should be nurtured, managed and properly protected.
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