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When is it okay to share your Social Security number?

Giving out your Social Security number at the wrong time can open you up to identity theft. But there are times when it is important to reveal this information.

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    The Social Security Administration's main campus is seen in Woodlawn, Maryland (Jan. 11, 2013).
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Your Social Security number should be among your biggest secrets, but there are times when you'll have to give it out. If you accept a job, your new employer will need a copy of your Social Security card on file, and you'll be asked to provide your number when opening a bank account or applying for a loan. But although it's common practice to share your number in certain situations, you don't have to give your number just because you're asked to do so.

If your Social Security number falls into the wrong hands, someone could open credit accounts in your name and steal your identity. Once your identity is compromised, your credit score can suffer the consequences, and it could become harder to purchase a house and get other types of financing.

The good news is that there's plenty you can do to keep your number safe. Here are a few dos and don'ts for giving out your Social Security number. 

1. Don't Respond to Emails Asking to Confirm Your Social Security Number

This is one of the oldest phishing tricks in the books.

Here's how it works: You receive an email from a company claiming to be your personal bank or credit card issuer. The email will state that the company needs to update your account information, at which point you're asked to click a link and confirm your Social Security number and other information. Some thieves may even call your house phishing for information.

No matter how real or official an email or phone call appears, remember that your bank or credit card company will never call or send an email requesting your personal data. Ignore these correspondences and report fraudulent activity to the Federal Trade Commission. Let your bank or credit card company know about the fraud, and you can forward phishing emails to spam@uce.gov.

2. Do Ask About the Reason for Requesting Your SSN

There are many reasons why a company might ask for your Social Security number. In some cases, the reasons are legitimate. For example, if you're getting a home security system, the security company may ask for your Social Security number. This is likely because the security agreement is a two or three-year contract, and the company needs to run a credit check to see if you meet the credit requirements. But this doesn't mean you should hand over your number without a fight. Make sure you understand why a company needs your personal information. If you don't agree or feel comfortable with their explanation, don't give out your number.

This rule also applies to family and friends who ask for your Social Security number. It doesn't matter if it's your parents, your brother, or your favorite cousin; there are few reasons why anyone would need your number. One example of a legitimate reason is if a relative names you as the beneficiary on his or her life insurance policy. The insurance company will need your Social Security number.

3. Do Offer an Alternative Way to Identify Yourself

Some companies rely on Social Security numbers to identify account holders. If you call your utility company or your cable company's customer service, the rep on the other end may ask for your number to pull up your account faster. This is a legitimate and innocent reason. But before you give out your number, ask the customer service rep if there's another way to find your account. You might be able to skip giving out your Social Security number if you have your account number handy, or you may only need to provide the last four digits of your SSN.

4. Don't Shout Your Number in Earshot of Others

If you go to the bank to make a loan payment and ask the teller for a payoff amount, the bank may require two methods of identification, such as your driver's license and your Social Security number. It's important to be aware of your surroundings when giving out your number. You'll want to keep your number private and still get the information you need. Some banks have keypads, which allow customers to type in their own Social Security number so they don't have to speak the number out loud. If this isn't an option, ask the teller or representative for a scratch sheet of paper. Write down your Social Security number so that the rep can enter the number into the computer. Once your number is entered, ask for the paper back and then scratch out the numbers and shred the paper.

5. Do Check Your Credit Report

It doesn't matter how careful you are with your Social Security number, there's always the risk of your information falling into the wrong hands. Hackers can break into a company or organization's computer system and steal account holder information. For that matter, don't ignore checking your own credit report at least once a year. Pulling your own credit history doesn't hurt your credit score. You can order a free copy of all three reports annually from AnnualCreditReport.com.

This article first appeared at Wise Bread.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best personal finance bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. To add or view a comment on a guest blog, please go to the blogger's own site by clicking on the link in the blog description box above.

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