The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Saturday, February 22, 2003  

Just Not My Social Security Number

I admit it. On the subject of my Social Security number I am a full-fledged crank. I am asked for the number too often. I am asked for the number by persons, businesses, and organizations that have no immediately recognizable use for it other than their own convenience. And I refuse, as a matter of principle, to provide my SSN in such situations.

Here's a good explanation, albeit not comprehensive, of the use and misuse of the SSN from Privacy Rights Clearinghouse:

Do I have to provide my Social Security number to private businesses?

Usually you are not legally compelled to provide your Social Security number to private businesses -- including private health care providers and insurers -- unless you are involved in a transaction in which the Internal Revenue Service requires notification. . . .

There is no law, however, that prevents businesses from requesting your SSN, and there are few restrictions on what businesses can do with it. But even though you are not required to disclose your SSN, the business does not have to provide you with service if you refuse to release it.

If a business insists on knowing your Social Security number when you cannot see a reason for it, speak to an administrator who may be authorized to make an exception or who may know that company policy does not require it. If the company will not allow you to use an alternate number, you may want to take your business elsewhere.

What brings up this issue now?

A recent visit to the veterinarian.

I took Mildred to a local vet to check on a few minor medical problems. As this was our first visit to this particular office, I was asked to fill out a form to provide the vet with the usual information: name, address, phone number, dog's medical history, and so forth.

Near the top of the form, this jumped out at me:

Social Security Number:

I assumed -- correctly, it turns out -- they were asking for mine, not Mildred's.

Like hell. What conceivable reason does a veterinarian have for asking for my SSN? I couldn't think of one, so I left that space blank.

After reviewing the form, the receptionist called me to the desk.

"We need your Social Security number," she said.

"What for?"

"For our records," she said.

"Oh, I'm sorry. Are there tax implications to this visit of which I'm not aware?"

"Huh?" she asked. And that's a direct quote.

"Why do you need my Social Security number?"

"So that we can find your records in our files," she offered.

"Isn't that why you asked for my name?"

"Yes, but more than one person can have the same name," the receptionist said.

[At this point I interject. The office in which I was standing is, I assure you, the world's smallest veterinary clinic. Or at least the smallest I've ever encountered. It's not even open every weekday. The place isn't exactly overflowing with patients. (Which, I would add, shouldn't necessarily reflect poorly on the vet in question, since he is one of the best I've met in my life.) The notion that someone sharing my name would soon pay a visit is so remote as to be ridiculous on its face.]

"Well, I really don't feel it's necessary."

"It will make things easier for everyone," she pleaded.

"I'm sorry. No."

She relented. And so, rather than typing in a nine-digit number the receptionist can from now on type in a nine-digit last name: C-a-p-o-z-z-o-l-a. Fine.

That was the end of it. Or so I thought.

When it came time to pay for the visit I noticed that my last name was misspelled on the bill, and hence, in the vet's records: C-a-p-p-o-z-o-l-a.

I foresee endless frustration ahead.

I wonder if she did it on purpose.

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