It was 10:30 at night. I was at the emergency room of an unfamiliar hospital. My son had ripped open the bottom of his foot at the hotel swimming pool, and he was bleeding heavily. The hospital attendant asked for details of the accident and my insurance card, which I provided. Then she asked for my social security number. In my single-minded focus on my son's well-being, I nearly blurted it out. Then I stopped myself. Wait—what did they need that for?
"It's standard procedure," the woman explained. "Not for me," I replied. "I don't give that out to anyone. You have what you need to process the claim. Are you still going to treat him?" They did, and he's fine now. But it brings up a salient point: Why do doctors, hospitals, even schools, persist in asking for a social security number when this simple nine-digit code is all a thief needs to steal your or your child's identity—and make your life a living hell?
You probably know someone whose identity has been lifted. Nearly 10 million people are victims every year—19 new ones every minute. The danger is not just from social security numbers either. Thieves can steal your identity simply by obtaining your name and address (so shred everything addressed to you). That's far from their only method of stealing of course. The huge Target data breach earlier this year means you need to monitor credit reports regularly (you can do so for free here). You need to protect your computer by installing anti-hacker software and storing sensitive data on an encrypted flash or external hard drive (not on your desktop). It's also critical to set up a unique password for every digital device you use and each online account you access. (Sidebar: I must admit this latter piece of advice seems unrealistic; unless you have a photographic memory, you've got to write them down somewhere . . .).
Still, these safety measures are especially relevant to new parents. Research recently released by LifeLock, the identity theft protection service, revealed that people who go through major life milestones are at far greater risk. Newlyweds are eight times more likely than an average person to have their identity stolen. New parents are five times more prone, and new homeowners are three times as likely to become victims. A prime reason: Oversharing of personal data online. During exciting events like a wedding or the birth of a child, people tend to post pictures and details across the Internet. Thieves can often piece together the data they need to commit fraud. So pay attention to where you post information and how much you give out. Don't use the Wi-Fi at your local coffee shop when checking your baby registry; you want to be behind a secure firewall, says personal finance expert Jean Chatzky, author of Money Rules: The Simple Path to Lifelong Security.
It's equally important to protect your kids' personal info. Child identity theft occurs 144,000 times each year, and this type of fraud often goes undetected for years—by which time a kid's credit record may already be ruined. Never give out his social security number (except on your taxes—you do want the child tax credit, right?) and don't carry it with you. Monitor your child's computer, tablet, and smartphone usage closely. Remind her that she must never give out her full name, birthday, address, or phone number to anyone online. Then remind yourself of this fact: Even posting your child's birthday and name to Facebook provides valuable data that savvy would-be identity thieves can use. Also be careful about buying from less-than-reputable sites that may offer a great deal on diapers or baby gear—they are prone to fraud and security breaches, says Chatzky.
Yes, new parents already have a zillion other things to worry about. You're overworked and sleep-deprived and stressed out and . . . and yet, the number one thing every mom and dad wants to do is keep their little one safe and secure their future. So please take these precautions. And the next time your pediatrician's office (or, God forbid, the ER) asks for your child's social, just say no.
Social Security card theft via Shutterstock