Like most digital natives, you probably prefer sending documents via email instead of using postal services. Emailing is quicker and more convenient, after all.
Although it’s normal to submit paperwork online, think twice before divulging confidential details like your Social Security Number (SSN). Carelessly emailing personal information puts you at risk of identity theft.
As daily email users, we also want to protect our online documents. So we asked our team to gather the most important best practices when disclosing confidential personal data.
By the end of this piece, you’ll know when and how to send personal information like SSN properly. We don’t want you going out on a limb whenever you fill out documents online.
Please read without skipping. We’ll share with you a very alarming yet common mistake many Americans commit when disclosing their SSN. Beware: you might already be divulging more personal information than needed.
So, is it safe to email your Social Security Number? Let’s find out!
Sending your Social Security Number via email
If you’re about to email your SSN, along with other personal information, as you read this guide, please wait.
Avoid sending confidential data via email. Keep in mind that websites only encrypt in-transit data; third parties can easily intercept your traffic, especially if you don’t use VPN services.
Legit organizations ask for personal information themselves. They’ll always assign an authorized representative ready to explain in detail what they’ll do with your SSN.
Of course, there’s also no hard-and-fast rule about divulging personal data. Knowing how to respond to different situations will help you avoid most identity theft attempts.
When it’s okay to disclose your SSN
Horror stories about identity theft will make you think that no one should ever know your SSN. No, you won’t take it to your grave.
The SSN is a unique nine-digit number that the Social Security Administration (SSA) uses to track one’s lifetime earnings. However, it evolved into a universal identifier over time.
Nowadays, organizations and institutions might ask your SSN if they need to:
- Report your income to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
- Confirm your identity for financial transactions under the Customer Identification Program (CIP)
- Check your credit records
- File your earnings as an employer
- See if you qualify for certain government benefits programs
To help you better understand when it’s okay to disclose your SSN, we’ve come up with several example situations:
1. Financing a car or property
Financial institutions and lenders need your SSN to run accurate credit checks; otherwise, credit bureaus won’t release your credit history.
You’ll likely provide the SSN in person. The bank teller might ask you to dictate your SSN or type it into a secure keypad.
2. Applying for government programs
Federal and state agencies need your SSN to confirm your identity and track your declared income before approving you for a benefits program.
The same rule applies to tax benefits. IRS agents will ask for a verbal confirmation of your SSN, or at least the last five digits, before releasing your refunds.
3. Submitting employment paperwork
Your employers will need your SSN to report your income, verify your identity, and declare your taxable income. Most HR officers will check your card themselves.
4. Requesting credit history
You can request a free credit report once a year. But before credit bureaus release your credit history, they’ll need you to prove your identity by stating your full SSN. Credit reports contain super confidential personal data, after all.
When you shouldn’t disclose your SSN
Beware: you’ll come across hundreds of forms asking for your SSN. Many institutions ask for the SSNs of their clients and customers even if they have no legal right to this personal information.
Trust us—most of them don’t need your SSN. In all likelihood, they only ask for SSNs to abide with their supervisors’ protocols.
Don’t quickly divulge your SSN if any of the following institutions ask for it:
- Arts or sports summer camps
- Businesses and service providers
- Charity organizations
- Medical institutions
- Retailers and grocers
- Schools and universities
Again, you have total control over what personal information you disclose. However, we suggest offering alternative forms of identification in the following instances:
1. Enrolling in school
Although most schools (i.e., colleges, universities, primary schools) ask for SSNs, students don’t have to comply. Educational institutions can only legally ask for the SSN of enrollees applying for a loan, grant, or scholarship; otherwise, they shouldn’t need it in their database.
2. Applying for health coverage
Don’t quickly give your SSN to your health insurance provider. The law still allows Medicaid to use SSNs for identification purposes, but Medicare must use its unique identification system, the Medicare Beneficiary Identifier (MBI).
3. Signing up for services
Service providers (i.e., utility companies, trash haulers) ask for SSNs so that they can report delinquent clients. Please don’t give your SSN; they should have alternative ways of collecting lapsed payments.
4. Buying a home or car
You only need to provide your SSN if you apply for a mortgage or auto loan. If you plan on paying the full amount in cash, sellers don’t have the legal right to know your SSN.
Dos and don’ts when sending personal information
Now that you know when and when not to disclose your SSN, let’s talk about the proper way to divulge personal information.
Yes, several agencies and institutions have the right to know your SSN. However, carelessly disclosing it to anyone who claims to work for these organizations will definitely put you at risk of fraud.
Some dos and don’ts when divulging personal data include:
Do: Disclose your SSN in person.
In most cases, you should disclose your SSN in person, either verbally or in writing. Never trust anyone who coerces you into divulging personal information online or via call.
Don’t: Shout your SSN.
Discreetly whisper your SSN to the representative or officer asking for your SSN.
Do: Verify the email’s sender
Always double-check if the person you’re talking to is who they claim to be.
Don’t: Fill out online forms asking your SSN
Unfortunately, most online forms asking for your SSN come from scammers. Legitimate representatives will reach out to you and provide you with different secure ways to disclose your SSN.
Do: Question why someone needs your SSN
Ask why the company needs your SSN. You don’t have to provide it if you don’t feel comfortable with their answer.
Don’t: Take random calls asking for personal information
Avoid divulging personal information over phone calls. Legit financial institutions and government agencies will never force you to disclose your SSN out of the blue.
Do: Offer alternative forms of identification
Most businesses and companies just want your SSN to confirm your identity. They should have no qualms if you provide an alternative.
Don’t: Carry your SSN card
Only a handful of organizations have the legal right to know your SSN, but even fewer will need your SSN card. Leave it at home.
Please reference these dos and don’ts the next time you need to disclose personal information.
Protecting your Social Security Number (and other personal information)
Most, if not all, government agencies and financial institutions will request your SSN in person. You’ll either fill out a form or say the numbers.
Just be mindful of your surroundings because crooks can get a glimpse of your form, watch you type your SSN, or eavesdrop on your conversation.
Also, if you’re asked to write your SSN on scratch paper, ask for it back. Tear the paper to shreds and dispose of it properly.
With that said, we want to emphasize that there are very few reasons why any organization or individual would need your SSN.
IMPORTANT: Before disclosing your SSN to a business, company, or agency, question what they will do with it. Also, ask about how they’ll protect your personal information.
Most organizations don’t have the legal right to demand your SSN. So as a general rule, leave the SSN field blank when filling out forms; an authorized representative will reach out to you if they really need it.
What to do if your Social Security Number has been compromised
If you suspect that someone could be using your SSN for fraud, you should immediately:
- Contact the SSA. Call the SSA at +1 (800) 325-0778 or +1 (800) 772-1213 and request a Block Electronic Access. It rejects alterations to your SSN personal information.
- Place a fraud alert on your credit report. A fraud alert notifies financial institutions that they should perform extra identity verification before approving transactions. To halt access to your credit line altogether, opt for a credit freeze.
- Trace the suspect. If you suspect that a company or organization was negligent in securing your SSN, you can file a lawsuit against them. Consult your lawyer on the best legal steps.
Take action the moment you notice any warning sign indicating identity theft. Note that crooks can open several credit lines and make massive purchases in just a few days.
Keeping your Social Security Number secure
Identity thieves have several ways to extract personal information. And although there are as many data privacy tactics that you can execute, your first line of defense is yourself.
It helps to view anything that asks for your SSN with extreme skepticism. Whether you received an email or a phone call, verify the person on the other end of the line.
Very few people should know your SSN. That way, you’ll minimize the risk of your personal data leaking, plus you’ll have a list of prime suspects if an identity theft attack transpires.
Of course, we still encourage exploring cybersecurity tools.
Common sense will only take you so far. You’d also need to monitor your credit score, scan the dark web for stolen data, use VPN services, and install antivirus software programs.