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Employees fear identity theft? Too bad: They still must provide social security numbers

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Question: No doubt you’ve read plenty about con artists stealing Social Security numbers (SSNs) to obtain fraudulent credit cards. And, unfortunately, your HR personnel files are a goldmine for ID thieves, filled with all kinds of juicy personal data.

But a new court ruling shows that the rise in identity theft doesn’t excuse employees from disclosing their SSNs to employers. You can and must insist on getting this data for I-9, background-check and tax-reporting reasons. And you needn’t fear a lawsuit if you refuse to hire (or later fire) new employees who fail to provide the information.

Case in Point: When John McCauley was hired for a computer help-desk job, HR asked him to fill out several employment forms. He left the section blank that asked for his SSN. He also asked the recruiting manager whether he could skip providing the number on his I-9 form. McCauley was apparently concerned that turning over his SSN might make him more susceptible to identity theft.

The company fired him for not meeting the hiring criteria. He sued, alleging he had been discriminated against because of his nationality (American) and that providing the SSN was a violation of his right to privacy. He argued that foreign employees who come to work with a visa don’t have to supply a Social Security number.

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out his case, noting that “federal law requires employers to collect Social Security numbers to aid enforcement of tax and immigration laws, and that these requirements apply to all employees.” Plus, the court said that, “Requiring disclosure of a Social Security number does not so threaten the sanctity of individual privacy as to require constitutional protection.” (McCauley v. Salvaggio, et al., No. 06-4089, 3rd Cir., 2007)

What does this new case mean to you?

While it’s clear that employees can’t use their fear of identity theft as reason to withhold their SSNs, employers are still required to take reasonable steps to protect the privacy of their employees’ data. Here are four easy ways to prevent identity theft:

1. Remove employees’ Social Security numbers from all name tags, personnel records, paychecks and other documents. Also, federal law requires you to destroy personally identifiable records before tossing them in the trash.

2. Perform thorough background checks on any applicant who will have access to personnel data, including HR staff. Keep paper files under lock and key.

3. Encourage employees to take advantage of their right to obtain one free credit report each year (see www.annualcreditreport.com). When employees suspect identity theft, they should place a fraud alert on their credit reports, which require companies to contact them before opening an account in their name.

4. Consider offering identity-theft resolution services as a benefit for employees. The benefit, which costs $5 to $120 per employee per year, helps employees cut the time and red tape involved in restoring their credit after an identity theft occurs.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Dan April 5, 2010 at 11:10 pm

The ONLY reason to ever put your SSN on any applications materials, is if the company is doing a background check. And those are only done immediately prior to a job offer. IN addition, the company is required to get your written permission before doing the background check.

On a side note, as a prior employee of BCBS, it is NOT mandatory to have your SSN be your medical ID. As Keith said, ‘”Because it’s the policy” isn’t good enough.’

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Keith March 5, 2009 at 3:25 pm

You can – and should – refuse to put your SSN on any applications materials. You should provide that information only upon being hired for a position. If an employer requires your SSN before an offer of employment is made, you really need to find out why. “Because it’s the policy” isn’t good enough.

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