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Politics

More ask for Social Security numbers; can you withhold it?

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Published:   |   Updated: June 2, 2013 at 10:00 AM
TAMPA -

Robert Scudder had heard the stories about police routinely finding identity thieves with other people’s medical records so he decided on a simple course to protect himself: He would stop giving his Social Security number to new doctors.

“I’m concerned about becoming a victim,” said Scudder, a 63-year-old Zephyrhills retired child services investigator. “I know some other people who have.”

But then an ophthalmologist refused to bill his insurance company without the number, even though Scudder had given the doctor’s office his insurance card. The doctor’s staff, he says, told him he would be seen only if he paid his full bill upfront.

Scudder left the ophthalmologist’s office without treatment. He went to another eye doctor; tired of the battle, he surrendered his Social Security number. “I didn’t want to even argue with them,” he said.

He did go to another doctor, a urologist, where the staff agreed to accept only the last four digits of his Social Security number.

Scudder’s quandary is not unusual.

Privacy advocates and law enforcement officials advise people to do exactly what Scudder has been trying to do: limit when they disclose personal information like Social Security numbers — especially in the Tampa area, where officials say identity thieves have created a burgeoning black market in personal information.

Experts say the Social Security number, created in 1935, was never intended to be an all-purpose identification number. Rather, it was supposed to be used for Social Security record-keeping and possibly for federal taxes.

“It’s really become so everyday in terms of the way people interact financially that it has become a real danger,” said Adam Levin, the former director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs and chairman and co-founder of Identity Theft 911.

Legally, consumers can be required to furnish their Social Security numbers in specific situations, from loan applications to school lunch programs and food stamp applications. Employers must collect the numbers for payroll records; states can require them for public assistance or driver’s licenses.

What’s legally required, though, is far different from what has become commonplace.

“I often wonder why they need Social Security numbers in the first place, why those numbers are available to these entities,” said National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson. “Why are they asking for them? I think that’s something worth looking at, the proliferation of people asking for Social Security numbers when there’s no overriding tax need, for example, for giving that information.”

The ubiquity of Social Security numbers means they are increasingly vulnerable to security breaches.

“Anyplace, be it a medical facility, doctor’s office, hospital that collects personal information, date of birth, Social Security numbers — they aren’t being kept under lock and key,” said Tampa Police Sgt. Pat Kennedy. “They’re too accessible to too many employees, and that’s being stolen and sold on the street.”

Rick Taveras, special agent supervisor for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in Tampa, said he would be “hesitant” to have his Social Security number recorded on virtually any form.

“I would just suggest to anyone who encounters that and doesn’t feel comfortable to have a conversation with the representative at that business office, whatever it is. You may be able to provide it and not write it down,” Taveras said.

“I ask a lot of questions when I go to the doctor and I basically don’t provide my Social Security number,” said Rick Kam, president and co-founder of ID Experts, which sponsored a national survey released in December that found 94 percent of hospitals had suffered data breaches in the preceding two years. “There’s always going to be a good doctor or a great doctor that will treat you.”

As Scudder learned, though, that advice may be easier given than followed.

Sam Imandoust, a legal analyst at the ID Theft Resource Center in San Diego, said withholding Social Security numbers at medical offices isn’t an option for many patients.

“I don’t think its going to work out so well,” Imandoust said. “You’re going to catch some resistance from your doctor’s office if you refuse to give your Social Security number.”

On the other hand, if the doctor will accept you as a patient without the number, withholding it is “a good idea,” Imandoust said. “That is absolutely advisable because that is one less place where your information is out there.”

People using Medicare have no choice but to provide their Social Security number because it is part of their account numbers. The government has resisted changing that practice, experts say, because of the cost involved.

Christopher Pittman, president of the Hillsborough County Medical Association, said medical offices have a variety of reasons for requiring Social Security numbers.

“Hospitals, as I understand it, are collecting Social Security numbers for patient safety reasons,” he said. The numbers are “a redundant way to uniquely and safely identify the patients.”

Medical facilities also often say they need the numbers in case a patient dies; the number is required for the death certificate. But some security experts say this need can be addressed by providing contact information for a family member who has access to the patient’s Social Security number.

The numbers are also used for collecting payment. “Is medicine a business? Well, certainly,” Pittman said. “Are there other ways to find people who don’t pay their bills? Based on my research, there are.”

“Patients can say, ‘I’m not going to give my Social,’” Pittman said. “An entity can say, ‘Well fine. You need to pay cash … and you can file your own insurance.’”

Pittman suggested a possible compromise: “If a patient is ever uncomfortable giving a SSN to front office staff or to any medical staff member, a simple solution is to provide the SSN directly to the physician,” he said. “Patients trust physicians with the sensitive and personal details of their lives.”

Pittman said this would allow the doctor to enter the number directly into an electronic medical records system, “which is much more secure than any paper record.”

The Social Security Administration has on its website a list of 17 examples of situations in which the numbers may be legitimately requested or required. The agency says the list is not comprehensive.

The Social Security Office of Inspector General “has always taken the position that reducing the uses to which the SSN is put reduces the risk of identity theft and associated crimes,” said spokesman Jonathan L. Lasher.

But the watchdog agency can’t control lawmakers’ expansion of the numbers’ use through the years, Lasher said, so it’s “focused on discretionary uses.”

Lasher advised that people protect their numbers “as they would any other thing of value.”

Many of the security breaches happen because people lose their wallets with their Social Security cards in them, he said, or “they fell prey to an email promising lottery winnings or a phone call from a criminal purporting to be a government official.”

Lasher also advised being judicious in giving out Social Security numbers and other personal information, as well as regularly checking credit reports, which can be viewed for free at www.annualcreditreport.com. Taking these steps, he said, “does a great deal to insulate you from ever becoming a victim and minimizing the damage if your SSN does become compromised.”

Dez Thornton, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration, said people are not required to give out their Social Security numbers to private businesses except for their employers and financial institutions, which need them for tax reporting.

In other instances, when the numbers are requested, Thornton advises asking why the number is needed; how the number will be used; what happens if they refuse; and what law requires them to give the number.

The answers can help a person decide whether to share a Social Security number, Thornton said.

“The decision is theirs,” he added. “However, they should know that refusing to give the number might mean doing without the purchase or service for which the number was requested.”


News Channel 8 reporter Lauren Mayk contributed to this report.

esilvestrini@tampatrib.com

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