This past week I went into an optometry store to buy some special cloths so my dad could clean his glasses without scratching the anti-glare coating off. I bought two and the total was $8.38. When I went to pay for the cloths, the cashier asked whether I wanted a receipt and I said yes. She asked me for my name, address and phone number, and I had paid cash. I told her I didn’t need the receipt after all. She was trying to add me to a mailing list.

That store’s not the only one to do this practice. If you’re in a hurry it may seem faster to give out all this information and just move on. But it’s a good idea to stop and ask why the store needs it. When you provide the information you’re giving consent for it to be used. The store could later share it with other vendors and you could find your address on many mailing lists. And who needs more junk mail?

Sharing personal information like your birth date, address and Social Security number may lead to identity theft. Be careful. Ask yourself if the person asking for the information really needs it. Ask the clerk why he or she wants it.

Earlier this month, Consumers Union released statistics about the collection and use of Social Security numbers.

  • 60 percent of consumers were asked to provide their SSN to a financial institution or retailer issuing credit
  • 49 percent of consumers were asked to give their SSN to a health care provider
  • 44 percent of consumers were asked to provide it to an employer or potential employer
  • 36 percent were asked to provide it to an insurance company
  • 32 percent were asked to provide it to a government agency other than the IRS or a state tax body
  • 28 percent were asked to provide it to a college or school
  • 26 percent were asked to provide it to a cable TV or cell phone provider
  • 17 percent were asked to provide it to a utility company
  • 16 percent were asked to provide it to a merchant or retailer

Of all these, who really needs your SSN? I’d probably say your employer. I would not give your SSN to a potential employer. What happens if you are not hired? Your SSN is still out there in someone else’s hands.

Some universities say their systems use SSNs as I.D. numbers. If they are still doing this, I’d say they have not gotten enough pressure to change. Think about it, if the Department of Motor Vehicles can change to a non-SSN system can’t a university? Why not go with student i.d. numbers?

The big takeaway is to be careful about who you share personal information with. If it strikes you as odd, ask why they need it. In many cases you can do business with a competitor who won’t ask you to compromise that information. And you’ll have protected yourself from identity theft.

Dec. 28, 2007.