Opinion - Straight Talk

3 ways you can keep your Social Security number … secure

Steven C. Johnson, financial planner with AspenCross Wealth Management
Key Points
  • According to one study, up to 80 percent of Social Security numbers have already been accessed by hackers.
  • To protect yourself, be discriminating about giving out your number, run your credit report annually, and use credit-monitoring services.
  • While the government won't generally give you a new number, it can usually offer you a workaround when your financial life has been compromised.
A Social Security Administration office in San Francisco.
Getty Images

All of your life you've been told to keep your Social Security number secret and safe. However, it's often requested during everyday moments, such as when you visit the doctor, open a bank account or start a new job. Have you ever considered how safe it is when you share your Social Security number?

Data safety is in question

This can be problematic, especially since data breaches are commonplace. It seems like one is always in the news these days. While the government hasn't indicated the total number of Social Security numbers subject to theft or fraud, a 2015 NPR interview that included data from Verizon, reveals that 60 percent to 80 percent of numbers already have been accessed by hackers.

These stats are even more frightening when you consider that the government doesn't like to replace numbers. In 2014 it issued fewer than 250 new Social Security numbers due to misuse. Given that incidents of fraud continue to rise and how devastating the Equifax breach was, it may not be realistic to rely on the government to fix the problem.

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It's crucial to recognize the dangers and do what you can to protect yourself. While we can't do much against substantial data breaches, there are a few recommended steps you can take to do your part in securing your Social Security info.

1. Don't give out your number. It sounds simple, but there are many occasions you may be asked for your Social Security info. The problem is that you are rarely obligated to comply. Except for your job, financial institutions, the Internal Revenue Service and other government programs, no one should require you to give it out.

You may have to really push back, but you can even tell your health-care provider "no" if you wish. Considering that many breaches have involved medical records, it's not a bad idea to shut them down when they ask.

2. Run your credit report annually. While you can't always tell if someone has your Social Security number, many of the red flags can be spotted on your free annual credit report from all three major companies. If someone has inquired about your credit using your number and without your permission, this will show.

You can also quickly check for suspicious new lines of credit. You are entitled to a free credit report each year from Equifax, Experian and Transunion, although you can pay for more frequent credit monitoring and identity protection from companies such as Credit Karma or LifeLock.

3. Take advantage of free monitoring. With millions of consumers affected by breaches each year, it's become standard practice for hacked companies to offer free credit monitoring and fraud detection as a courtesy to those involved. Don't hesitate to sign up for these services and use them. Since most people don't realize that their number has been stolen until something terrible happens, be sure to speak up if you believe you are a target.

The bottom line

The threat of having your Social Security number compromised is very real. It's key to make sure you take steps to protect and monitor your info.

While the government won't generally give you a new number, it can usually offer you a workaround in instances where it affects your daily financial life. Many taxpayers, for example, only learn of a compromised number when they file their return. Getting it straightened out with the IRS may take a while, but you can start matters without delay. Providing proof of any communications or suspicious activity can help move your case along and give you the time you need to work issues out.

(Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Investopedia.com.)

— By Steven C. Johnson, financial planner with AspenCross Wealth Management