"The widespread use of Social Security numbers has made it easier for crooks to commit fraud and contributes to the estimated 10 million cases of identity theft every year," said Jeannine Kenney, senior policy analyst with Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports. "It's time to restrict the availability of Social Security numbers to prevent this sensitive information from falling into the hands of identity thieves."
The government issues a nine-digit Social Security number to citizens, temporary workers, and permanent residents. While they're mainly given out to administer taxes, the numbers have become a primary means of identification. And in recent years, they've become the crux of identity theft since the numbers serve as a key to people's financial identities.
The Consumer Union poll found that 87% of consumers have been asked in the past year to provide their Social Security number in whole or in part by a business or government agency. Requests, the researchers noted, also come from a wide variety of businesses for purposes beyond credit, employment, or tax compliance. Many requests reportedly come from businesses that have no clear need to collect these numbers.
"Although consumers well understand the vulnerabilities associated with giving their SSN to others, most provide it when asked out of fear for the consequences of refusing," wrote spokesmen of the Consumers Union in comments filed with the Federal Trade Commission, which is studying the collection and use of Social Security numbers. "Many consumers believe their sensitive information held by others is not secure and support obligations to protect that data and to provide remedies to consumers when security is breached. ... Ironically, it appears that the widespread reliance on the SSN for identity verification and fraud prevention is exactly why it is so valuable to identity thieves."
The poll showed that 91% of those surveyed agreed they are more vulnerable to identity theft when a business has their number, and 89% said companies should stop using Social Security numbers to identify customers.
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