Skip to main content

BEACON Senior News

Stop sharing your Social Security number!

Oct 01, 2020 01:33PM ● By Arthur Vidro

As a kid, I watched the 1950 movie “Champagne for Caesar,” starring Ronald Colman. He played the role of a successful contestant on the then-popular quiz shows. Nothing stumped him. He kept winning and winning and eventually became a national celebrity.

At the end of each show, he’d either take the money he won or return for a double-or-nothing situation and try to answer another question. He kept returning. Eventually, he had won tens of millions of dollars (worth hundreds of millions today), but he kept risking it all to return.

Finally, in what was agreed upon as his last visit to the show, he risked it all again. The emcee asked for his wallet, found the contestant’s Social Security card, and stumped him with this question: “What is your Social Security number?”

Back then, nobody memorized the number. There was no reason to.

My, how times have changed.

We’re all familiar nowadays with our Social Security numbers. They’re bandied everywhere. Banks require them for opening an account or lending money. The military uses them. Your employer can demand your number before paying you.

It’s gotten way out of hand. But it hasn’t always been this way.

When Social Security was created in the 1930s, the assumption was one’s number would be used solely for transactions with the Social Security system. I still have my original card from the 1960s. It clearly states, “For Social Security and Tax Purposes—Not for Identification.”

Cards issued today make no such claim. The claim would be ludicrous. In telephone calls, Social Security numbers are routinely used for identification with insurance companies, credit card providers, even some utilities—matters that have nothing to do with Social Security or taxes. Entities that have no business needing your number claim to require it.

Two years ago I changed dentists. The form for the new dentist asked for my Social Security number. Instead of giving it, I wrote, “There is no reason you need this information.” They didn’t ask again. But a computerized form usually doesn’t give you such leeway.

Until recently, Medicare cards contained our Social Security number, shown at every doctor visit. And IRS-mailed tax booklets used to have the nine-digit number printed in full view. How could such inane systems have developed? Perhaps when confined to paper records, these numbers were pretty safe. But in the glorified computer age, thousands or millions could be stolen at a time.

Thankfully, Medicare and the IRS changed their ways. But other risks remain. People you’ve never met, living thousands of miles away, can steal money from your bank account if they learn your Social Security number and perhaps a wee bit more information about you.

Identity theft occurs daily, simply because computerized data systems that harbor Social Security numbers get hacked.

Equifax, one of the nation’s three major credit-reporting companies, got hacked in 2017, affecting the data of about 40 percent of the nation’s population. All those Social Security numbers, with names and birth dates attached, potentially in the wrong hands.

It’s scary. Makes me wish for the days of “Champagne for Caesar,” when nobody was interested in our Social Security numbers.