If you’re a citizen or legal resident worker of the US, you have a Social Security Number (SSN). You’ve probably heard the term thrown around a lot, especially when something like the Equifax hack happens, but you might not know exactly what a Social Security Number is or why it’s so important. That’s what we’ll be tackling today.
What is Social Security?
Social Security is a program that helps provide income to people once they retire or become disabled. Its name comes from the fact that the program gets society to work together to provide financial security to retired workers.
It can be a little complicated, so I’ll cover just the basics here.
The way it works is that current workers put money from their paychecks into the Social Security program while current retirees take money out. If you look at a pay stub, you’ll see the Social Security contribution listed as part of what’s been taken out before the employee got paid.
When today’s worker’s retire, their Social Security money will be provided by the people who are in the the workforce then, and so on.
To be eligible to collect Social Security, people must meet certain age requirements and have worked for at least a certain number of years. The amount of money people are allowed to get from Social Security in retirement depends on how much they earned while they were working.
What is a SSN?
Your Social Security Number is a 9-digit number you are assigned when you become a citizen, permanent resident, or temporary worker resident of the United States, which might be when you’re born or later in life.
Everyone’s SSN is different. These numbers were originally used to keep track of how much you contribute to the Social Security program, but they have become a way to identify people and in fact are probably the most important piece of identifying information in the US.
Everyone who has a SSN is issued with a Social Security Card that lists his or her number. It looks something like this:
Why is it important to know your SSN?
You will be asked to provide your SSN in basically any situation that requires a major financial interaction. These include getting a job, getting a loan or mortgage, and even opening a bank account, although some banks will accept other forms of ID.
You shouldn’t carry your Social Security Card with you every day or store your SSN anywhere it might be lost or stolen. Memorizing it is safer and more convenient and allows you to fill out forms without relying on your card.
Who should know your SSN?
Be SUPER picky about who knows your SSN. The fewer people who know it, the lower your chances of having your identity stolen. Immediate family members like your parents, spouse, or children are really the only people who might need access to your SSN, and never let anyone have this info without knowing exactly why they want it. It’s probably safer to just let your family know where to find your card if there’s an emergency rather than telling everyone the number directly.
How to protect your identity
Never give out your SSN online without knowing who is asking for it and why. Legitimate companies and banks will never ask for that information through email.
When possible, only fill out forms in person or through a secure internet connection. That means no random public WiFi or cell service.
Ask if you can just not give your SSN when you’re asked for it. You might be surprised how often it’s optional. Medical offices, for example, often put a space for your SSN on their forms but don’t actually require it.
I wish I’d known that years ago before frantically calling my parents to find out my SSN at the dentist’s office (back before I’d memorized it). I took so long to finish that form because I got hung up on putting in my number, which probably didn’t even need to be there! Sigh.
Keep your Social Security Card somewhere safe and secret. I’ll say it again: that place should not be your wallet. If you keep it in your wallet and your wallet gets lost or stolen, you’ve basically just handed a stranger the keys to your identity. Losing your cash, ID, and credit cards is bad enough without worrying about your SSN being out there. Also, it’s a huge pain to get a new Social Security Card.
A fire-proof safe is the ideal place for something this important, but at least keep it in a file or box with other important papers so you can grab it at a moment’s notice.
By the way, I know the card seems flimsy and easy to destroy because it’s paper, but you’re not supposed to laminate your SSN. It makes it more difficult to recognize some special qualities on the card that prove it’s real.
You can store your card in a specially-made holder, but a nice, simple way to protect your card while it’s in storage is to keep it in a sandwich bag that zips closed.
I hope it’s now clear what your Social Security Number is and why it is important. Make friends with it. It will be with you longer than most things in your life: jobs, pets, furniture, and maybe even your hair.