Ruth Bass: What's in your wallet? Not your SSN, please

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RICHMOND — It's hard enough when the car wash ticket machine spits back your $20 bill and, being all but speechless, doesn't tell you why. If you're lucky, an attendant will notice that your car hasn't moved for several minutes, and help will be on the way. It's nice to get that sand and salt off the car once in a while.

But it's even harder when the machine in the super market refuses to take your credit card. You've been in line behind people whose debit or credit card didn't work, but now it's you. The cashier politely advises sliding again. Again, no dice. It's not going to go. So, you try a different card and learn that you and your groceries will leave the store together.

What happened? A Social Security number happened. It turned out that within days, possibly hours, of my husband's death, his Social Security number triggered something at American Express, and the grand world of electronics rendered the account useless, even though I had a duplicate card with my name on it. He was the primary, American Express was informed instantly, and I was out..

Direct word came to our household from American Express by mail a few days later, but not before I imagined that a number of people in line with me were thinking, "What's wrong with her card?" Or, at the very least, were giving the inward sigh of the person who realizes he or she has picked the wrong line.

It was not the first time I had wished that the small, red-white-and-blue card bearing my Social Security number had been better protected by my government. It was supposed to identify me as an employee contributing to my eventual retirement when I would get government checks and Medicare. But it had become my national ID card and, in one of those pesky unintended consequences, the perfect key for a host of thieves to steal my identity.

That brief rejection in the super market made me think again how foolish it was for Social Security numbers to become ubiquitous. Convenience — everyone has one — has attached them to credit cards, bank accounts, loan applications and all kinds of other documents. And with the way we are linked electronically, that proliferation has created a rich harvest for thieves.

Some banks have fought the good fight and stopped using Social Security numbers (SSN) to verify a customer's identity after the initial account set-up. That means their clients are not required to give that number to whatever person answers the phone at the bank after you've prowled through the Press 1, Press 2, etc. routine. A New York Times story from a couple of years ago found that only five, however, of the nation's 25 largest banks had established that policy.

But individuals can take the advice of the experts and improve their own firewalls. They say to put your Social Security card in a safe place (not your wallet), and don't give out the number over the phone. No one should recycle bills and other documents that have the SSN on them, or drop them in the trash. Thieves, like Oscar on Sesame Street, apparently love trash — although their interest is less savory than his.

Identity thieves can use your SSN to get your medical records and file for unemployment benefits. And now, in the income tax filing season, they have their eyes on your tax refund, available by filing a false return with your name and SSN on it. The Internal Revenue Service blithely and efficiently sent tax refunds totaling $5.2 billion to thieves last year.

The basic defense, however, has two parts. Government needs to build some new walls in the Social Security number system. First, general use needs to be restricted (Massachusetts already allows a non-SSN on drivers' licenses), making it less likely that thousands of people have access to your number. And everyone needs to ask, "Why?" when someone asks for that precious number. It should be a better-kept secret.

Ruth Bass is trying to remember the "safe" location of her card. Her web site is www.ruthbass.com.


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