Social Security

Social Insecurity

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If you worry about your Social Security number falling into the wrong hands, a recent government report says you've got good reason for such anxiety. Your number probably already has been used in ways you might not have expected–or authorized.

Because Social Security numbers are increasingly used by government agencies and private companies to identify individuals–and because of complaints about that trend–the House Ways and Means Committee's Subcommittee on Social Security asked the General Accounting Office to investigate the extent of governmental and commercial use. The GAO found that practically everyone–from credit bureaus to police departments to tax collection agencies–uses the numbers to identify individuals.

In fact, those groups were emphatic that they needed a single, widely used number to track people. Absent Social Security numbers, tax agents said that it would be nearly impossible to identify taxpayers; credit bureaus said it would make it difficult for them to conduct credit reports; cops worried that it would be easier for offenders to hide traffic violations; and health care providers said it would be difficult to maintain medical histories.

Such widespread use, however, is precisely what discomfits the public. Armed with your Social Security number, virtually anyone can track down your personal information, from your credit rating to your driving record. In the wake of the GAO report, lawmakers are considering legislation to restrict the use of the nine-digit identifiers.