Is It Safe to Give an Account Number and a Routing Number to Someone?

Direct deposit and automatic payments from your bank account take very little information to set up.

Your bank account number plus the bank's routing number -- the numbers listed on the bottom of your checks -- can be used to set up electronic deposits or withdrawals from your account. With more than 70 billion of these types of transactions completed each year, you will probably give your account information to more than a few businesses or individuals to authorize transactions in one direction or the other. However, your bank account information can also be used for fraud, so take the appropriate steps to protect yourself.

Electronic bank deposits and transfers are handled by the Automated Clearing House system. If you have your paycheck directly deposited into your bank account, the deposit is an ACH transaction. You can make automatic payments such as for insurance or your health club with ACH debits from your account. Setting up an ACH transaction requires just the account number and bank routing number for your account. Legally, you must authorize any ACH transaction in or out of your bank account.

It is possible for someone to set up ACH withdrawals from your account if he has the account and routing numbers. ACH fraud is big business, but it mostly targets commercial bank accounts. Bank fraud is often accomplished through email spam messages that download spyware software onto a computer to collect keystroke data such as bank accounts. Care should be taken when giving out your bank information and you should not provide your bank account information in response to email requests.

You should only authorize ACH withdrawals from your account through a written form or via the secure Web page of a company with whom you are familiar or have an established relationship. Consumer protection laws give you 60 days to dispute a fraudulent ACH withdrawal and recover the money. You should check your bank statement every month and make sure you've authorized any electronic payments. If you see a withdrawal you did not authorize, immediately contact your bank with the details.

Commercial bank accounts are not covered under the 60-day rule to report fraud. The owner of a business bank account has only 24 hours to detect and report a fraudulent ACH withdrawal. With a business account either the transactions must be reviewed daily or some sort of ACH filter can be used to electronically monitor transactions for possible fraud. Banks offer different types of ACH filtering tools to their commercial customers.


Do I Have to Give the Insurance Company My Social Security Number?

What to do if you accidentally give out your social security number

After you've been in an accident, you'll start the claims process which - unsurprisingly - requires a lot of paperwork. Most insurance claims forms will ask you to list your social security number, but with identity theft running rampant, it's no wonder you're hesitant. Do you have to give up your social security number? No, you don't.

Why Do Insurance Companies Want Your SSN?

The reason the insurance company wants your social security number is to see if you have coverage under Medicaid or Medicare. If you do, the insurance company is entitled to be paid back by your Medicaid or Medicare for anything they (the insurance company) pays you for your medical expenses.

So let's say Joe rear-ends you and you're sent to the hospital as a result. You'll file a claim through Joe's insurance - he caused the wreck, so it's his job to pay for your medical bills and damage to your car.

After Joe's insurance company pays you for your medical bills, there are some instances where they're entitled to be paid back. If you have Medicaid or Medicare, this applies.

If You Don't Have Medicare or Medicaid

If you don't have either of these, then the insurance company doesn't need your SSN and you have nothing to worry about.

If you have either of these but you still don't want to give the insurance company your social security number, there is a form you can sign to verify you are not covered by Medicare or Medicaid. Simply ask your adjuster for this form instead.

You are not required by law to give out your social security number. If you feel uncomfortable doing so, it's good to remember that in most cases, your insurance adjuster won't need it.


What does your Social Security Number say about you?

For the average American, the Social Security Number holds special significance. It follows you from birth to death and can act as a key to a variety of sensitive information - bank accounts, tax returns, driver’s license information, residences, etc. However, even though you likely know your social by heart, you probably don’t know what those nine digits actually reveal. Today’s blog explores the history and significance of the social security number and how the SSN is used in the background screening industry.

A brief history of the Social Security Number

FDR’s passage of the Social Security Act of 1935 provided millions of Americans with a new financial safety net in the form of old age, disability, and survivor’s insurance, as well as supplemental security income for the elderly and disabled. The program is funded through Social Security taxes paid by employees and their employers and is available to individuals once they retire or otherwise become eligible. With the Act’s passage the Social Security Administration (SSA) needed an efficient means to track each citizen’s earning records over a lifetime and the social security number was born. Today, social security numbers have been issued to more than 450 million people (SSA.gov).

Dissecting the Social Security Number

The nine digit social security number is grouped into three parts– the area number, group number, and serial number.What to do if you accidentally give out your social security number

The area number is the first grouping in the social security number. Originally, the area number indicated the location of the Social Security Administration office where an SSN was issued (state, territory, or possession) (SSA.gov). Individuals could apply at any office, so the area number was not an indication of where they lived or worked. This changed in 1972 when the Social Security Administration began issuing SSN’s from its Baltimore headquarters and assigning area numbers based on the applicant’s mailing address. Anyone who applied for a social security number between 1972 and 2011 will have an area number that correlates to the mailing address listed on their application (SSA.gov). However, the area number cannot be used to determine residence since you can have mail sent to any location. In 2011, the SSA changed the way area numbers are assigned yet again to a system called “randomization.” Anyone applying for an SSN after June 25, 2011 has received a randomized area number that has no correlation to any location (SSA.gov).

The Group Number

The middle section of numbers is simply there to make administration easier for the SSA. The group number ranges from 01 to 99 and allows Social Security Numbers with the same area number to be broken into smaller pairings. Geographic data is not indicated by the group number.

The Serial Number

Similar to the Group Number, the serial number does not have any special significance to the SSN owner’s location. The serial number ranges from 0001 to 9999 and is assigned consecutively within each group number.

As you can see, your social security number does not expressly say anything about you. Even the area number, which was tied to a location for 76 years, cannot be used to accurately pinpoint a residence. So how does an employer go from having your social security number to knowing where you’ve lived, worked, and gotten into trouble? They use a background check.

Since social security numbers are used to track many types of personal transactions, a background check searches a variety of sources (mailing houses, public records, credit bureaus) to pull up information on an individual. Accurate Background’s Social Security Trace and Address History search goes back seven years and identifies information including current addresses, all addresses where an applicant has lived, name summaries and variations, date of birth, etc. This information can then be used to search for criminal records in counties where an individual has lived, as well as identity potential discrepancies or whether owner of the SSN is listed as deceased. Social Security Numbers can also play an important role in verifying the results of a background check – for example when a criminal record is returned that actually belongs to someone with a similar name. In a nutshell – your social security number confirms you are who you say you are and that nobody else’s information accidentally gets mixed into your report.

So while those nine digits don’t actually mean a lot at face value, they have the potential to reveal a detailed personal history when used by someone who knows how to use it.


How can I protect my Social Security number?

You should treat your Social Security number as confidential information and avoid giving it out unnecessarily. You should keep your Social Security card in a safe place with your other important papers. Do not carry it with you unless you need to show it to an employer or service provider.

We do several things to protect your number from misuse. For example, they require and carefully inspect proof of identity from people who apply to replace lost or stolen Social Security cards, or for corrected cards. One reason they do this is to prevent people from fraudulently obtaining Social Security numbers to establish false identities. they maintain the privacy of Social Security records unless:

  • The law requires them to disclose information to another government agency; or
  • Your information is needed to conduct Social Security or other government health or welfare program business.

You should be very careful about sharing your number and card to protect against misuse of your number. Giving your number is voluntary even when you are asked for the number directly. If requested, you should ask:

  • Why your number is needed;
  • How your number will be used;
  • What happens if you refuse; and
  • What law requires you to give your number.

The answers to these questions can help you decide if you want to give your Social Security number. The decision is yours


When are Social Security numbers required?

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I previously wrote about why a medical office would require a Social Security number , but readers reacted with a slew of more questions regarding that coveted piece of identification. Nan in Oregon wants to know who else can ask for it, Jerry in New York wonders if he could be discriminated against if he doesn't reveal his Social Security number, and one reader may have just been duped into giving it out.

You wrote about giving out Social Security numbers at doctors’ offices. Who else can ask for this information?

Any business can request your Social Security number, but that doesn’t mean you are legally required to give it to them. Here’s the problem: Social Security numbers were never meant to be a personal identifier, but they’ve become just that. Ed Mierzwinski, Consumer Programs Director at U.S. PIRG, points out that “there is no law that prevents a business from discriminating against you or not doing business with you, if you do not provide the requested information.”

There are certain times when Social Security numbers must be used. This is not a complete list, but here are some of the major situations when they are required:

  • Most financial transactions
  • Employment records
  • Tax returns (federal and state)
  • Medicare benefits
  • Contact with the Social Security Administration
  • Applications for a hunting, fishing or other recreational license.

Some states have their own requirements for providing Social Security numbers. For instance, in Washington you must list your Social Security number the first time you apply for a driver’s license. Federal law (The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004) prohibits states from displaying your Social Security number on your license or vehicle registration forms, but they can still collect this information.

Because the Social Security number has become a personal identifier, you will need to use it for many other transactions -- basically anything that involves a credit check or background check. A potential landlord or prospective employer will probably request it. And anyone lending you money or extending credit will need it.

“We really are in a terrible situation today with the abuse and overuse of Social Security numbers,” says Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. “Just try getting a credit card or insurance without providing your Social Security number,” Givens says. “You’ll also need it to get a professional license and to apply for college.”

You may even be asked to provide your Social Security number when starting utility or cable service. Before you give it out, ask if you can provide some other form of identification, such as your driver’s license number. They may be willing to accept it if you prepay the first month’s bill, which is the law in California. For people who live in other states, you may need to talk to a supervisor to make this happen. A driver’s license number is much less useful to an identity thief than a Social Security Number.

I’d like to know why credit card companies want my SSN. You must give it to them or you cannot open an account. I only give my number to companies that will pay me interest; not vice versa.

The bank or store issuing a card wants to check your credit history to see what sort of credit risk you are. They’ll also want your credit score to set the initial interest rate. If you have a good credit score you’ll get a lower interest rate than if you have a bad score. This may not seem fair, but it’s how the system works. You may be able to find a bank that will give you a card without requiring your Social Security number -- if you provide other identification –- but I don’t know of one.

Can you refuse to provide a Social Security number on an employment application? Could this be a form of discrimination?

You aren’t required to provide your Social Security number, but there’s a very good chance you’ll eliminate yourself from consideration if you do not. The potential employer probably wants to do a background check on you and that’s easier to do with your Social Security number. Asking for this information is not a form of discrimination.

During a routine traffic stop, the officer looked at my driver’s license and then requested my Social Security number? Why would he need that and do I have to give it to him?

I contacted a couple of police departments and was told there are several reasons why an officer might ask for a Social Security number, and they all involve making a positive identification. This can happen if you have a common name, if the officer believes you are giving false information, or if the police computer indicates there’s a warrant out for your arrest. The officer will want to use a second form of identification (your Social Security number) before making an arrest. In these situations, if you decided not to provide the requested information, you could find yourself in the back of a patrol car headed to the police station.

Recently Verizon Wireless wanted my Social Security number before I could get cell phone service. I refused. Can they do this to me? Should I sue them?

Yes, they can do this. No, you shouldn’t sue them. Verizon wanted your Social Security number in order to do a credit check before giving you service. This is a common practice in the cell phone industry because they are extending you credit, allowing you to make calls each month and run up charges before your bill arrives. Verizon Wireless spokesperson Georgia Taylor says there is another option. “You can go with a pre-paid phone that lets you buy a specific number of minutes in advance,” she says. With these pay-as-you go plans, the phone company does not need to check your credit, so you don’t have to provide your Social Security number.

I called the toll-free “opt-out” number to stop the avalanche of unsolicited credit card offers I get in the mail. I was asked to leave my Social Security number on an answering machine. I am very leery about giving my Social Security number to anyone and now machines are asking for this information. What a joke. I will contact the credit bureaus via U.S. mail.

I understand your concern and I know this seems rather strange, but this is actually how the opt-out program works. The major credit bureaus run this program that lets you make one phone call to stop most pre-approved credit offers. The number is 1-888-5-OPTOUT (1-888-567-8688). Because the credit bureaus identify you via your Social Security number, you need to give them that number if you want to opt-out.