Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Protect Your Identity and Credit by Protecting Your SSN

Having been in real estate for more than ten years, I have seen first-hand the devastating effects caused by identity theft. One of my clients, looking to buy his family's first home in Silverdale, was referred to one of my mortgage lenders. Everything looked good during the pre-qualification, but when they pulled his credit report, there were so many charges, open accounts, delinquent accounts, past due notices, etc. His credit score was horrible.
The problem was, none of those accounts were his. They did not belong to his wife, either. And try as they might, they could not convince the credit companies holding the accounts that the accounts were not his. The credit reporting agencies said they could not help, because the credit companies holding the accounts were able to 'prove' that the accounts were his.
He still has no idea who stole his identity, or how they did it, but it has been four years and he has still not recovered his credit enough to be able to buy a home.
One main component in protecting your credit is protecting your social security number. By law, consumers are not obligated to give their social security numbers to anyone except their employers, their banks, and the IRS. Banks include not just your savings and checking accounts, but any accounts or loans you hold or apply for, including your mortgage account.
Remember, when you give your social security number to one person at a company, everyone in the company that has access to the database system, including accountants, customer service people, admin assistants, and sometimes even receptionists, have access to your social security number. And unfortunately, not all of them are honest, law-abiding citizens.
You are not legally obligated to give your social security number to anyone else. Do not put it on your checks. If a cashier ever asks for your SSN to in order to accept a check, refuse. They can not require it. Offer them your drivers license number instead.
Even utility companies can not legally require you to reveal your SSN. They will tell you that they can not open an account without it (as they did me), but that is not true. They use the number as a personal identification number, so ask if they can use another number instead.
They will tell you that they can not open the account without it, and they may stick to that story. It is up to you to convince them, and if you can't see if there are other options. I could not get the electric company to open an account for us without it, so I ended up being forced to give them my number. Otherwise, we wouldn't have electricity. However, the other utility companies (water, sewer, garbage, etc.) allowed me to open the account without it.
By limiting which companies held my SSN, I took one more step in protecting my identity and my credit. I suggest you do the same.

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