Riskiest places to disclose your Social Security number

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social security card surrounded by cash moneyColleges, banks and hospitals rank among the most unsafe places to disclose your Social Security number, the computer security firm McAfee says in its blog.

Consumers are forced to regularly disclose Social Security numbers to all kinds of organizations, including hospitals, insurers, banks, credit card companies, car dealerships and even video rental stores. And that means your unique identifier appears in hundreds or even thousands of files, records, and databases accessible to an untold number of people.

Identity thieves scour a variety of sources to uncover these nine-digit numbers, including dumpsters, file cabinets, databases maintained by government, corporate, and educational institutions, as well as public records openly accessible on the Internet.

Cyber-criminals are also becoming more adept at hacking into databases containing Social Security numbers and using them to open accounts with financial institutions, McAfee warned. Criminals also use stolen Social Security numbers to obtain mobile phones, credit cards, and bank loans. Some victims whose Social Security numbers fell into the hands of identity thieves have even had their mortgages refinanced and their equity erased.

McAfee analyzed incidents of data breaches involving Social Security numbers published by the Identity Theft Resource Center, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, and the Open Security Foundation from January 2009 – October 2010 to determine the top 10 most dangerous places to give out your Social Security number. They are:
  • #1 – Universities/Colleges (108)
  • #2 – Banking/Financial Institutions (96)
  • #3 – Hospitals (71)
  • #4 – State Governments (57)
  • #5 – Local Governments (44)
  • #6 – Federal Governments (33)
  • #7 – Medical Businesses (27)
  • #8 – Non-Profit Organizations (23)
  • #9 – Technology Companies (22)
  • #10 (tie) – Medical Insurance and Medical Offices/Clinics (21)
People do refuse to give out their Social Security number to businesses, McAfee says. But doing so can result in a denial of service or necessitate overcoming a number of inconvenient hurdles. Most financial institutions state a Social Security number requirement in their terms of service.

Here are five tips to protect yourself from identity theft:
  • 1. Check your credit report this week using the free, government-mandated service, Annual CreditReport.com.
  • 2. Refuse to provide your Social Security number.
  • 3. Securely dispose of mail by shredding pre-approved credit card offers and any other mail that includes any account information.
  • 4. Opt out of junk mail and pre-approved credit card offers at OptOutPrescreen.com.
  • 5. Secure your PC by taking advantage of free and top-rated anti-virus programs such as avast! Free Antivirus.
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