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Here's how identity thieves are ripping people off. (Source: SpendOnLife.com)

Here's how identity thieves are ripping people off. (Source: SpendOnLife.com)

I went to a new dentist yesterday. Tons of forms, of course. Name, address, telephone number. I filled each space in completely. Then I came to one that made me stop. Social Security number. I skipped right over it, something I’ve been doing for years now. When I was finished, I brought my form up to the desk. The receptionist pointed out my omission. “I’ll need you to fill this out completely,” she told me. “Nope,” I said. “I don’t provide that information. There’s no reason you need to have it.” She hemmed and hawed, but she accepted my form — with a glare — and I got to see the dentist. She knew I was right. And so did my child’s school, my midwife, and the local eyeglass place, all of which in the past requested my Social Security number and got turned down flat by me.

What’s the big deal, you might ask? Your Social Security number is a key part of your identity. Most of us are extremely careful when it comes to credit cards, banking statements, and other financial documents, but we don’t think twice about giving the person sitting at the front desk the very key to our financial health. And we often do it unwittingly. Some people still write their Social Security numbers on checks. Others let their doctors use it as their patient number. Sometimes, it’s even less obvious. Recently, I signed my daughter up for soccer. They required proof of age. When I went to make a copy of her birth certificate I noticed them: two Social Security numbers — mine and my husband’s. I made the copy, and cut them off of it. Again, the local soccer league is staffed by plenty of wonderful people, but there’s always a chance that someone slipped by the background checks and is just waiting to steal an identity, something that more than 10 million Americans reported happening to them in 2008 alone. Your Social Security number may also be on an old health insurance card, old bank statements or paperwork, old transcripts, and pre-2005 driver’s licenses.

What can someone use your Social Security number for? A number of things, actually. Aside from the obvious — getting a car loan, cell phone, credit card or mortgage — a thief can use your Social Security number to get medical treatment, get a job and report wages, get a driver’s license, or even say they are you if they get arrested or in trouble. A few years ago I had an issue with my tax return. The reason: the IRS had me down as making $1,050 as a migrant worker in California. I was lucky. I wasn’t a victim of identity theft, just bad luck. The worker had made up a number out of the blue, and it happened to be mine. He never used it again. Most identity theft victims don’t have it that easy, though. They spend hours and hours freezing credit histories, closing fraudulent accounts, and filing police reports and other complaints. (There’s a great primer about what to do if you’re a victim of identity theft on the Federal Trade Commission’s Web site.) In many cases they have problems getting their own mortgages or other credit. They often end up dealing with hospital and doctor bills, too, since medical ID theft is an ever-growing threat. (Need more proof? Check out this great New York Times story that shows how medical office employees are increasingly the ones who are ripping off Social Security numbers and medical insurance information.)

Next week is National Protect Your Identity Week (PYIW). According to a recent National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) poll, 60 percent of Americans say they want to feel more protected, but don’t know what steps to take. You can learn more about identity theft — how to prevent it, whether you’re at risk, and what to do if you think you’ve become a victim by checking out an NFCC Web site: ProtectYourIDNow.org, where you can find a quizzes, games, blogs, and information about workshops in your area. In the meantime, remember this: Unless it is absolutely necessary — for example, you are receiving Medicare or Medicaid in which case your Social Security number is required for treatment — skip the Social Security line on your next doctor’s form. You have the power to keep your credit safe.

According to a recent National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) online poll of more than 1,000 individuals, 60 percent responded that they’d like to feel more protected, but don’t know what steps to take.

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