With an estimated 3.5 million Social Security numbers stolen every year, based on research findings from Javelin Strategy, we're taking a step back to explore in more detail exactly how numbers are stolen and what you can do to protect yours.
In fact, according to the same research, more than two in every five identity thefts come from stolen wallets or physical paperwork and only one-in-10 originates on the Internet.
You may be surprised at the variety of other techniques crooks use to get your Social Security number.
--Dumpster diving and trash searches.
Yes, people actually will search through your garbage for documents that include your Social Security number.
It's the opposite of dumpster diving people take a look at your mail before you even receive it by raiding mailboxes, or intercepting it before it's delivered.
In some instances, thieves file a change of address report with the USPS to divert your mail; USPS has checks in place to try to prevent this from happening.
--Hacking and data theft.
This may be via the Internet, directly breaking into networks or taking computer printouts.
Sometimes, digital records on laptops and tape drives are stolen. In the biggest incident of its type, in 2007, almost 800,000 Social Security numbers were compromised when a backup tape was stolen from a car in Ohio.
This category also includes viruses and spyware that troll through victims' PCs looking for a Social Security number or other confidential information, then transmitting the details to the scammer.
Many times, victims just give their number to impostors who claim to be banks, landlords or others who might require their Social Security number for their supposed security purposes.
Crooks may even pose as officials from the Social Security Administration itself, asking victims to confirm their numbers.
--Dishonest employees and co-workers.
They take a peek inside your purse or wallet while you're away from your desk, or examine HR records to which they have access.
--Reading them off other cards.
Social Security numbers are included on a number of other identification cards, including some used by the military (now being phased out and replaced), Medicare (Congress attempts to change this have so far failed) and other health insurers.
One of the key reasons why a Social Security number is such a juicy target for thieves is precisely because of its widespread use for verifying identity.
This was not the original plan when Social Security was introduced. As the nonprofit consumer advocacy group, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, reports:
"When Social Security numbers were first issued in 1936, the federal government assured the public that their use would be limited to Social Security programs such as calculating retirement benefits."
Hmm, that's certainly not how it works today, is it? Many banks, credit card issuers and other financing applications ask for it, your employer wants it and maybe even your children's school records it.
Protect your number
Next, we summarize the most important things you can do to try to prevent your Social Security number from being stolen:
--First and foremost, don't carry your card around with you. Memorize the number.
And don't carry other cards with the number unless you know you're going to need them.
The PRC even suggests photocopying these must-carry cards, leaving the original at home and deleting all but the last three digits on the copy that you carry with you.
However, we're not able to say whether all medical service providers would accept this.
--Whether you have these identifying cards with you or not, keep your wallet securely with you or under lock and key at all times.
--Don't store your Social Security number in an unencrypted file on your computer.
If you don't know how to password protect or encrypt files on your computer, either find out or don't store those details.
Remember, this doesn't refer just to the number itself but to any documents like copies of tax returns, pay slips and financing applications that contain them.
--Shred all documents that contain your Social Security number and other confidential information before disposing of them. Tearing them in half is not enough!
--If your outside mailbox is one that doesn't already have a lock and key, consider buying one that does. Just do an online search for "locking mailboxes."
--Never give out your Social Security number over the phone if you didn't initiate the call. You have absolutely no way of being 100 percent sure of who you're speaking to.
The Social Security Administration or any other legitimate organization would never ask you for your full number, though some financial institutions might ask for the final three or four digits.
--Likewise, beware of providing the number to anyone else who asks for it online, by email or by mail.
You're not legally required to provide it to anyone other than the SSA, the IRS, a couple of other government departments and, probably, your employer.
You should ask anyone else who requests it why they need it and whether they would accept some other form of identification.
You have to be 100 percent sure of the authenticity of whomever wants it and 100 percent sure they really need it. Otherwise, don't hand it over.
Gary Johnson is the Senior Outreach Program Manager for the Better Business Bureau of North Dakota and Minnesota.
However, some organizations may refuse to do business with you if you don't provide your Social Security number. That's their right, and your choice.