Identity thieves only need a few key pieces of information to steal your identity: your name, your birth date, and your Social Security number. Of the three, your SSN is the most important piece: if the thieves have that much they can generally find their way to everything else, as well.
Many institutions don’t make it all that easy to keep your SSN secret, however. It seems like every company you deal with wants to know it, whether they need to or not. Some states still print the SSN right on your driver’s license. Some companies still set your account number as your SSN. This can open you up to information theft even if you yourself are taking all possible precautions; companies announce breaches in security every single day. In fact, thieves do operate by simply buying the numbers from inside sources who might have access to this information. Even if the company is legitimate the employee handling your information might not be; it can be virtually impossible to tell who is making $50 an SSN as a sideline to their day job.
You can protect yourself by offering your SSN out less. Ask the companies who want to work with you if they are willing to simply take the last four digits of your SSN. You shouldn’t have to use the number for any other reason than applying for credit or applying for your government benefits. If the company in question does not have to check your credit then they have no business taking the number. Some companies, such as Dish Network, can run the credit check on the last four digits plus your name and address, making it possible to cut down on the number of people who have access to your number. You can also ask the company to use an alternative form of identification or number. Very few companies have the right to actually demand your number, so guard it as much as possible.
You should be especially careful about giving your number out to people or companies who have initiated an unsolicited conversation with you. These people often call posing as lenders or loan officers. They tell you that you’ve been approved for a loan and then take down all your information. You never hear from them again. Some of these companies appear and disappear literally overnight, but always have a legitimate looking website, company name, and address. They will typically work out of one state and target people in another so that you don’t know that the address they are quoting happens to belong to the Chinese Restaurant that’s been closed for years.