When Ruth "Martie" Sewell walked into the Motor Vehicle Administration, she wanted only to renew her driver's license. But she wound up answering a question that she says violated her privacy.
The clerks wanted Sewell's Social Security number before they would give her a new license, citing a state law that took effect since she had last renewed it.
No Social Security number, no license.
Citizens routinely give their number to businesses and government agencies. But Sewell vociferously refused, taking her complaint to an MVA supervisor before finally giving in.
She does not like government or business compiling information about her under her Social Security number, as if it were some sort of national tracking system.
"I guess they won't be satisfied until we're under the foot of Big Brother," says the Severna Park resident.
Sewell got her Social Security number after graduating from high school in 1943. The Social Security Act, passed eight years earlier, required every worker to have a number to record taxes paid into the Social Security fund. "People of my age were told that this was their number, and no one was supposed to know it," she says.
Times have changed.
More often than not, someone wants your Social Security number in order to keep records about you. Federal and state governments, for example, use the numbers to maintain tax and driving records.
Credit bureaus use them to keep credit histories. That information winds up in computer data banks that can be viewed by others without your knowledge or consent.
A prospective employer can use the data bank to find out whether you pay your bills on time. Merchants can use it to target you for mailings hawking their products.
"Information about every move we make, whether we buy a car or a home, apply for a loan, take out insurance, purchase potato chips, request a government grant, pay taxes, get Social Security, go to work, see a doctor, is fed into dozens and dozens of data banks," journalist Jeffrey Rothfeder told a congressional subcommittee in February. He investigated the issue for his upcoming book, Privacy for Sale.
The widespread use of the Social Security number worries privacy advocates, who say the practice makes it easier for people to compile information about you from many sources.
A snoop will have an easier time obtaining your credit report and passing off his inquiry as legitimate if he knows your number, they say.
"Any time it happens, it's a significant problem because credit reports contain such private information," says David Medine, acting associate director for credit practices at the Federal Trade Commission.
Also, crooks who have your Social Security number will find it easier to put credit cards and bank accounts in your name. By doing so, they avoid paying credit card bills or taxes on interest income.
"We are concerned about the growing popularity of this kind of activity," says Alan T. Fell, Maryland's commissioner of consumer credit.
Neither state nor federal agencies can say how many consumer crimes involve misuse of Social Security numbers. But Fell speculates that the number could be in the hundreds for Maryland alone.
In fiscal 1990, federal prosecutors chalked up 551 convictions for Social Security number violations involving government programs.
To show how easy it is to misuse the system, journalist Rothfeder obtained Dan Quayle's Social Security number and credit report for a 1989 Business Week article on privacy.
The top part of a credit report often contains a Social Security number but no financial information, according to Rothfeder, who testified to the House Social Security subcommittee. The top can be purchased by a computer user from an information reseller, he said.
Rothfeder said he got Quayle's credit report using a personal computer and information sold by a data bank with "lax security." All he had to do, he recalled, was to tell a white lie: He said he might be hiring some people and wanted their credit reports. The ruse worked.
Portraying himself as a credit company employee, Rothfeder called Sears' credit department, provided Quayle's account number and asked for his unpublished address and telephone number.
The Sears employee became suspicious, but Rothfeder put him at ease when he rattled off the vice president's Social Security number. Many people still believe -- erroneously -- that the number is private and available only to authorized people, he said later. The Sears employee took the bait, giving Rothfeder the information.
Credit bureaus use the number to prevent the credit histories of people with the same name or address from being confused -- especially when people change their name and address, says Norman G. Magnuson, spokesman for Associated Credit Bureaus Inc. "It's a trade-off between privacy and accuracy," he says.
Martie Sewell would rather err on the side of privacy. "If someone has your Social Security number, they can ruin your life, your credit," she says.