One of the most taken-for-granted pieces of government documentation has got to be the poor, misunderstood Social Security card. While it has always been designed to be physically counterfeit-proof, the card itself offers no proof that the bearer is actually who he says he is.
It’s the information contained on the face of the card itself that is so valuable. But if it doesn’t tell anyone who you really are, what’s it good for?
According to Carolyn Puckett of the Office of Research, Evaluation, and Statistics, Office of Retirement and Disability Policy, Social Security Administration, “The original purpose of the SSN was to enable the Social Security Board to maintain accurate records of the earnings of individuals who worked in jobs covered under the Social Security program. The card was never intended to serve as a personal identification document… However, the simplicity and efficiency of using a unique number that most people already possess has encouraged widespread use of the SSN by both government agencies and private enterprises.”
Unfortunately, the widespread use of the SSN as an identifier has contributed to the growing crime of identity theft. Criminals need only access a few pieces of sensitive information in order to open new accounts, establish lines of credit, file fraudulent tax returns, and more.
But a new bill, the Identity Theft and Tax Fraud Prevention Act of 2015, introduced this past March by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-FL, includes some dramatic steps that are designed to minimize the threat to consumers. One of the very first items that can help protect individuals from losing their information in data breaches (either intentional or accidental) is to limit the uses of the Social Security number, specifically in the healthcare system.
“Use of the SSN as a convenient means of identifying people in large systems of records has increased over the years and its expanded use appears to be an enduring trend… Generally, there are no restrictions in federal law precluding the use of the SSN by the private sector, so businesses may ask individuals for an SSN whenever they wish (Streckewald 2006),” explained Puckett in a document for the Social Security Administration.
While it’s not illegal for an agency or a place of business to request your Social Security number, it’s also not required that you provide it. You don’t have any legal recourse, though, if a business like a doctor’s office refuses to treat you if you don’t provide it. What is more unfortunate about the use of SSNs as an identifier is the fact that many places will request it as standard procedure without even really knowing why they’re asking for it. It’s as if we’re so accustomed to handing it over on a form or during a registration process that we do it without even thinking about it.
The bill, which has garnered a lot of support from lawmakers, would eventually halt the practice of using your Social Security number in healthcare settings. This would be good news for consumers in that a number of hacking events and internal data breaches have occurred through healthcare and insurance offices, like the recent Anthem Healthcare breach. The bill would also increase the penalties for certain identity theft practices, like tax refund fraud or distributing stolen personal data. Finally, the bill does a lot to upgrade the current IRS practices of reporting and correcting tax refund fraud.