Teens are getting pretty good these days about protecting their safety and identity on the internet — after all, this is the generation that was born with a cellphone in hand. But some of the more “old-fashioned stuff,” like using the nine-digit Social Security number needed to apply for a job, fill out a tax return or open a bank account, may be totally foreign to a college-bound kid entering the real world for the first time.
If a Social Security number were to fall into the wrong hands, someone could easily do a world of damage. To protect your teen’s identity and their funds, it may be time to have "the talk" about the times when you should never, ever share your SSN. According to Andrew Brandt, lead threat research analyst at Webroot, adults and children alike need to change their way of thinking when it comes to their Social Security numbers.
"There are some scenarios when a Social Security number is required, but otherwise, I would say there is absolutely no reason to give it to anyone," Brandt told SheKnows. "You should train yourself to reflexively not enter your Social Security number onto any form, period."
If the person collecting an application says it won't go through without your Social Security number, Brandt encourages teens to ask them to explain why it's required. Technically, private companies are allowed to deny service based on a refusal to provide a Social Security number. To work around that, a good strategy is to offer something in place of an SSN, like a driver's license number or even a cash deposit.
With that in mind, Efrat Cohen, a licensed private investigator and executive director of Global Intelligence Consultants, says that once a teen has their Social Security number memorized, there’s never a good reason to keep it on their person. “Your Social Security number is your 'individual fingerprint' that legitimizes you and all your dealings for all time. However, and unlike actual fingerprints, carelessness can allow others so inclined and maligned to use your fingerprint as their own and, in the process, destroy everything identified with and related to the legitimate possessor of that number,” Cohen told SheKnows. “As Social Security numbers are memorized by the holders, there should never be a need to 'carry' a document with that number printed on it, and especially not so in any purse or wallet!”
But this is only the tip of the iceberg. We’ve asked several more digital safety experts to weigh in on those critical times when a young adult should never share their SSN.
1. Applications for discount cards
"Just because a supermarket club card application is asking for your Social Security number doesn't mean it's appropriate for you to give it to them, nor is it necessary or even appropriate for the supermarket club to have that information," Brandt said.
Beyond avoiding the extraneous card applications that may request an SSN, Benjamin Glaser, editor at DealNews, urges teens to keep up with their credit reports to put a stop to identity theft in its early stages. “One of the worst things that can happen through identity theft is the opening of a brand-new credit line in your name. Unlike a simple case of a stolen credit card, you won't see a new credit line on your bank statement and might not know what is happening until your credit score is wrecked. So start checking your credit report regularly. You're entitled to three free ones — one from each major reporting company — every year. If you see any suspicious behavior, report it immediately,” Glaser said.
2. Over the phone
No matter how convincing the caller may be, you should never give your SSN over the phone. So what should you do? If someone claiming to be from your bank, phone company or health insurance company asks for your Social Security number, Brandt advises you get their name and phone extension, then call them back using the number printed on your latest statement or from their website. This way you can validate that they're legitimate and not a scammer.
Glaser adds, “And remember that your bank and other legitimate institutions will never ask you for your SSN in an unsolicited phone call or email.”
The same goes for online. Tami Nealy, director of corporate communications at LifeLock, says banks and health insurance companies will never send an email asking you to reply with your Social Security number. If you receive a suspicious email appearing to be from your bank or insurance provider, validate it by contacting them directly using a phone number from their official website or from your last statement.
Because of the growing number of these fraudulent emails, the Social Security Administration recently released an anti-phishing warning, cautioning against phishing email scams pretending to be the SSA. Most official emails from the SSA should end in “.gov.” SSA email links and logos should also redirect to the official website. “Students should look for signs of a scam, like bad grammar and spelling in the ‘official notice’ and other suspicious things. Though it’s of utmost importance to have anti-virus and anti-malware, these won’t stop a thief from using the student’s number after the student is tricked into giving it on a phony website,” Robert Siciliano, identity theft expert and CEO of IDTheftSecurity.com, said.
If your teen encounters a website or phishing email that asks for an SSN, it’s time to click on out of there posthaste. “As with legitimate websites and internet resources, none will require from you the revealing of your individual password or security phrases and so forth. By the same token, no site (outside of official government-related and secure sites) should ever ask you for your Social Security number, and without full qualification, that number should never be revealed,” Cohen said.
4. Public Wi-Fi
There may be identity theft traps all over the internet, but Social Security information transmitted over public Wi-Fi can be especially dangerous, Glaser says. “Only send personal info over secure connections to safe, legitimate destinations (like secured websites). Remember that the safest connection is on a private internet connection (like at home). If you must send sensitive information, like your SSN or credit card, while in public, keep in mind that your phone's data network is relatively more secure than a public Wi-Fi network.”
Siciliano recommends that teens avoid using public Wi-Fi for any transactions involving money or sensitive information, since it’s especially easy for hackers to snoop on these data transmissions. “A virtual private network will prevent snooping by encrypting transactions,” he says. “Not all campuses provide secure Wi-Fi, and the presence of anti-virus, anti-phishing, anti-spyware and firewalls don’t guarantee all levels of protection. To play it safe, students should never visit bank account sites, insurance carrier sites and other such sites while using public Wi-Fi.”
5. Doctor's office
Unless a teen is using Medicare or Medicaid, your doctor shouldn't require you to provide your SSN. Many doctors think of your Social Security number as their protection against missed payments. So if a doctor insists on receiving those nine digits, a teen can ask to pay cash upfront instead. The fewer eyes that see an SSN, the better. “There is no foolproof system, but there is absolutely no excuse whatsoever for not practicing total awareness and exercising every precaution to minimize that potential from happening to the new college student,” Cohen says.
For people of any age, and especially for teens leaving the nest, it can’t be overstated enough: Keeping your Social Security card secure is a big deal. “Lock your Social Security number with other vital yet nonessential identification documents, like your passport and birth certificate,” Cohen advises. “In fact, there would never be an occasion when you would need to produce a document containing your Social Security number beyond legitimate employment applications.” And when applying for a job, Cohen says, it’s likely that a teen will have already researched and selected a trustworthy employer. Only in these circumstances is it OK to supply a physical Social Security card in good conscience.
Originally published September 2010. Updated August 2016.
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