The Checkout

Social Security Scam

Each year, in October, the Social Security Administration announces the cost-of-living increase for the following year for the nation's 49 million Social Security recipients.

The COLA for 2007 was remarkable for two reasons: 1. It was smaller than the COLA for 2006. 2. It took phishers about three weeks to come up with a way of piggybacking on news of the benefit increase for their own nefarious purposes.

The Social Security Administration has received several reports of an E-mail message making the rounds with the subject line "Cost-of-Living for 2007 update."

Claiming to be from the Social Security Administration, the scammers tell recipients about the 3.3 percent cost-of-living bump in benefits for 2007, with the following instructions: "We now need you to update your personal information. If this is not completed by November 11, 2006, we will be forced to suspend your account indefinitely."

Would-be victims are then directed to a Web site that looks like the Social Security Administration's official site.

Once directed to the phony Web site, they are asked to register for a password and to confirm their identity by providing personal information such as their Social Security number, bank account information and credit card information.

No doubt, the Social Security COLA phishing scam will join the annual parade of faux government agency e-mail assaults, that start during tax season.

Granted, this particular scam lacks the flourish of a Scottish lottery e-vite. And it's not as brazen as e-mails from phony charities claiming to be collecting money for victims of the Southeast Asian Tsunami. But preying on seniors and the disabled who make up many of Social Security's recipients is pretty low.

As one of you said last week, there are very few instances in which you must give out your SSN to anyone. States can't use them anymore on driver's licenses. You're not legally obligated to give most private businesses your Social Security number. (Financial institutions, which are required by law to authenticate customers' identities, may need them.) Businesses, of course, have the option not to do business with you, and vice versa. Perhaps if we all boycotted businesses that asked us for our SSN, they would get the picture and stop.

The government is another story because, in the case of the IRS, for instance, your SSN is your tax identification number. So, you're stuck there.

If a government agency appears to be asking you for your Social, know that the Privacy Act of 1974 requires them to provide a disclosure notice on the form saying under what authority the SSN is being requested and how it will be used. Unfortunately, if there's no disclosure, it may still be a legitimate government agency doing the asking. And government agencies don't get in trouble for failing to include privacy disclosures, according to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

If you receive one of the phony Social Security Administration e-mails, call the Social Security's Office of Inspector General at 800-269-0271 or go fill out a form online.

Do you think it's possible to get along by boycotting businesses that ask for your Social Security number?

By Annys Shin |  November 13, 2006; 9:00 AM ET Consumer News
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

"Do you think it's possible to get along by boycotting businesses that ask for your Social Security number?"

Yes. Best Buys seems to be able to take my money when I don't give them my zip code. With SSNs it may take a while for it to sink in, but they will learn when it costs them money.

Needless to say the Social Security Administration will never email you for your SSN. They already have it.

Posted by: Steve | November 13, 2006 10:02 AM

I have never had a business ask for my SSN and if I did I wouldn't give it to them.
On a side note, I saw a commercial on TV the other day featuring none other than McGruff the Crime Dog giving helpful hints to senior citizens on how to deal with telemarketers. It's the first time I have ever seen it, has anyone else seen this commercial? It's pretty clever, esp. the catch line at the end: It's not rude, it's shrewd (to hang up on the telemarketer.)

Posted by: Melissa | November 13, 2006 10:10 AM

No need to boycott. Just tell them you don't want to give out SSN. When dr's offices ask for it, I leave the field blank. The ID theft issue has made this position less unusual than it was years ago when you had to choose NOT to use SSN on a driver's license.

Posted by: Peter from Boston | November 13, 2006 10:38 AM

When I was in college a thousand years ago, your SSN was your student ID number. You needed it to buy things from the book store, it was all your papers from registration through graduation. How secret could it be? But back in those days we never thought about identity theft.

Scammers go after older people because they were taught to be courteous and obliging. My mother wouldn't think of hanging up on somebody, neither would most older Americans. It's just rude. I've been telling her for years -- "These people barge into your home via the telephone. Don't bother talking to them, just hang up if you don't know them." She won't answer the door at night now, either, unless we call to tell her we're coming over.

Posted by: Southern Maryland | November 13, 2006 10:55 AM

When I deal with any brick-n-mortar I never give out anything except the cash. That's all they need. If they refuse to do business with me (yes, it has happened) I walk away. Other stores are more than happy to take my cash.

When on-line it is a little different. They get the delivery address along with the CC number, but only through SSL pages that I have researched. Phones numbers they don't get. SSN I never give out except to the gov. on hard copy only.

Posted by: Me2 | November 13, 2006 11:04 AM

I noticed last week when I showed my Voter Registration card in VA that my SS# is on there, that bothered me.

Posted by: Voter | November 13, 2006 11:27 AM

Stores often ask for phone numbers. I ask back "What for?" Oh for mailing coupons to you, they say. No thanks! It bothers me though how they ask for that right after they process your payment, as if the phone number was integral to the payment process. It's sneaky, and catches folks off guard. Why can't they just say "Are you interested in receiving coupons and special offers?" If I was so inclined, then I would know they need some contact info, and the experience wouldn't be so jarring.

I do give my SSN for college application purposes. It says not required, but knowing how incompetent most clerical workers are nowadays, I almost feel better knowing they have one central number to tie my paperwork to...less room for mistakes. It also, strangely, helps me feel better about representing myself to them, that I am who I say I am by giving out my SSN, given today's climate of suspicion and paranoia.

I'd feel better knowing who actually had my SSN. What about requiring people or businesses that request this info to report that they have it to a credit bureau or something? That way I can look at the list, and request removal/destruction of my SSN when possessed by people or businesses I feel no longer should have it?

Boycotting businesses doesn't seem to be a good idea to me. The problem is there is no real black and white rules out there of when a SSN is required and when it is not. So it's a guessing game for most people. It's just hard to know when they need it for legit purposes or not, and the thought of asking, of actually questioning their business pracitces makes me pause becasue it involves confrontation, and most people do not enjoy engaging in confrontation as consumers.

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | November 13, 2006 11:49 AM


Who are those brick and mortars? Maybe the rest of us can help by boycotting them.


Posted by: Steve | November 13, 2006 11:59 AM

I'm finding that more & more businesses also want your driver license #. I just say I'll let you see the picture but will not allow them to copy # which they try to pass off as a security thing. If they insist I just say I'll skip this transaction. I do the same with SS#. They cave but if they don't my money is good elsewhere.

Posted by: Claire | November 13, 2006 12:13 PM

Two questions: Are banks authorized (using your SS#) to do a "soft hit" credit check on any new customer? And, if they are, are they required to tell you or show you that they're going to do that?

Posted by: Carole | November 13, 2006 1:23 PM

Home depot wanted my SSN for a credit card application. I refused. They refused to send it in. "fine, I said. I'll go to Lowes.... "

They sent it in.

The other thing I can't understand is the outright personal information on warranty cards. They want to know how many kids you have and how much you make etc..

I never fill it out. Even though they say it's for the warranty. It's not.

I say boycott the businesses. and never give out any personal info. They only need it to send you junk and sell to telemarketers. Fight back!!!

Posted by: tom | November 13, 2006 1:30 PM

Asking for your SSN for a credit card app (store or otherwise) IS a legitimate request. That's precisely what the number is for .. checking credit!

You're not just asking Home Depot to sell you a piece of lumber .. you're asking them to extend credit for you and trust that you'll pay.

Posted by: that's legit | November 13, 2006 2:00 PM

1) It's against the law in the state of Maryland for a business to ask for your telephone number when you are using a credit card. The presumption is that the credit card issuer already has that information and the retail establishment has no legitimate reason to ask for it. We won that privacy issue about 20 years ago. Unfortunately in today's world there are too many "required" fields when buying on-line. Maybe we need a federal law prohibiting telephone number and email address as required fields when purchasing on-line!
2) A long ago Congress is pretty much to blame for the current SSN problem. It used to be that your SSN card specifically stated that the number could NOT be used for identification purposes. Why not lobby Congress to fix that?

Posted by: eleatic | November 13, 2006 3:14 PM

Most, if not all, merchants who ask for your SSN are not entitled to it. Lie to them. They need nine digits? Give them nine digits. It's not worth the effort necessary to argue with the minimum-wage clerks you encounter - just give them nine digits and let them fill out their forms.

If I'm feeling especially nasty, I give them my ex-wife's SSN.

Phone number? They don't need to call me and I don't need to be called by them. Give them the number of the reference desk at the local library, or mortuary, or pest control service.

Keep your privacy and your identity and have fun at the same time.

Posted by: Schuyler DuQuesne | November 13, 2006 3:24 PM

Washington Gas will not let you establish service without a Social Security number. When my father moved into his house, he refused to give Washington Gas his SSN. He had no gas in his house for the first 10 days (in December 2004) until he gave his SSN number and they sent a tech to restart the line.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 13, 2006 5:04 PM

A local store asked for my SSN when I applied for their credit card. I said NO and they processed and gave me the credit card anyhow. JUST SAY NO! BTW Colleges are no longer allowed to use SSN; I am Asst Prof at University and have taught at 2 diff institutions over the last 8 years - about 4 years ago the one in NY stopped using SSN and a year ago the other one in another state stopped too. Check out for specific info about private businesses rights to ask for SSN - only if they have to report something to IRS.

Posted by: An Independent | November 13, 2006 6:12 PM

Has anyone tried purchasing a new car from an authorized dealer and not providing your social security number? It cannot be avoided if you want the car. New legal requirement stemming from the anti-terroism laws resulting from 9/11.

Posted by: Edward | November 13, 2006 9:25 PM

For uncensored news please bookmark:

Please boycott Microsoft and download Mozilla at

November 13, 2006 -- Anonymous guest column from a long time player in the computer programming business:


Chairman Bill Gates testified before the U.S. Congress that Microsoft will need to expand H1b visas to meet demand for it's software. Unemployed U.S. workers did not receive an invitation to Congress. The Cornyn-Shadegg "SKIL Bill" is being attached to an Omnibus Appropriations bill in this lame-duck session of Congress. If the SKIL Bill passes Congress, U.S. high tech workers will be flooded with foreign competitors undercutting their wages and professional development. No other profession has been so unfairly treated by the U.S. government and it's corporate masters. MICROSOFT claims that these jobs pay 100K annually and that the workers they need are not here in the U.S. It's a lie! There are very few (virtually no) engineers getting paid 100K per year and the U.S. educates numerous engineers annually who have to compete with the absolute lowest paid tech workers on Earth for their jobs. If we allow MICROSOFT and other corporate powers to dictate our future we will not be capable of having engineers in the U.S. who are not imported under H1b visas. The price of the software will be as high as now or higher even though they will be exploiting foreign labor against the interest of the U.S. citizen. Wages of U.S. software engineers have actually dropped by 12% over the last 5 years due to outsourcing.

If this bill passes during the lame-duck session then consumers will have the privilege of supporting foreign workers over the futures of our own, and the futures of our children. Fewer and fewer U.S. workers have the ability to compete with workers outside the country, where the cost of living has been lower - there is little we can do to control that situation at this time. However to claim that U.S. workers do not have the skills to do the very jobs which we created right here in our own country - is hypocrisy only corporate America could generate. We are calling now for a complete boycott of all MICROSOFT products and sending a warning to all U.S. high tech corporations that you may be next on our list. The exploitation of U.S. workers via the intent of a corrupt lame-duck congress is an outrage.

In this age of push button war, internet political action, widespread government data theft, BLOGGERS, and home pages, can it be right to put this power only in the hands of gigantic corporations and governments, who willfully exploit U.S. workers?

Posted by: che | November 14, 2006 5:46 AM

So, I give the merchants these numbers:

SSN 999-99-9999

Telephone 999-999-9999

I gave out my 999 phone number at Lowe's last week. I found out that an unrelated party also had the same number! :)

Posted by: Fred | November 14, 2006 10:16 AM

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