You don't (or shouldn't) have to show them no stinkin' SSNs

CONSUMING INTERESTS

November 02, 2008|By DAN THANH DANG | DAN THANH DANG,dan.thanh.dang@baltsun.com

Sometimes, there is just no explanation.

For 43 trouble-free years, John Murray never left home without his American Express card. The retired data coordinator dutifully paid an annual fee every year and diligently paid his balance in full every month. When it came time to renew in April, Murray paid the $85 due and then called the toll-free number to activate the new card sent him in the mail.

Only this time, Murray encountered something new.

"I was told that I must give American Express my Social Security number before the card could be activated," said Murray, 81, who spent 30 years with the Social Security Administration. "I refused, since American Express has no valid reason for having it, and I know Social Security numbers were never meant to be used for identification. I gave them my telephone number, my address, my date of birth and everything else they asked me.

"But, I was told that without revealing my Social Security number, they could not activate my new card," said Murray, who has lived in his Berlin, Md., home for 20-plus years. "So I then told the representative that I wished to cancel my card and have my membership dues returned. The answer? I would have to give American Express my Social Security number to cancel my account."

The absurdity boggles the mind.

Unable to either continue or terminate this relationship, Murray snail-mailed us a request for help.

We called AmEx on his behalf on Oct. 23.

We're going to give AmEx some credit for activating Murray's card in the end. How we got to that point, though, we have no earthly idea, since American Express refused to discuss Murray's complaint, citing its privacy policy.

So we can't explain why the company suddenly needed an SSN from Murray after more than four decades without. It's not as if he had moved, changed phone numbers or he was a new customer.

"They told me it was 'essential' to me activating my account or closing it," Murray said.

We can't tell you when American Express began asking customers for an SSN. Murray said he never had to share his digits before April. But Lisa Gonzalez, an American Express spokesman, said, "I'm not sure the exact date, but we've been asking for Social Security numbers for years."

We also can't tell you if SSNs are mandatory to hold an account with AmEx.

"We ask various questions to verify card security," Gonzalez said. "It can vary by case. Depending on the individual's circumstances, we may ask for a portion of your Social Security number."

We can't even tell you if AmEx customers can substitute some other form of identification in place of an SSN that may or may not be required by AmEx.

"To protect the integrity of fraud control, I can't get into additional details," Gonzalez said.

Hmm. Color us - Murray included, since he heard not a peep from AmEx - befuddled.

So we asked card expert Bill Hardekofp to read the tea leaves and attempt to explain why Murray's credit relationship with AmEx was in limbo.

"That's just really odd," said Hardekofp, chief executive of LowCards.com. "If they charged him an annual fee and he already paid it, he's already contracted the right to use the card. This is pure speculation, but I think this is a product of the changing credit environment. Back when he opened his account, I bet this gentleman was probably grandfathered in so he probably didn't need to provide a Social Security number.

"Now that banks are reassessing their risk during the current credit crisis, I'm guessing that maybe this issuer is checking credit reports for all their customers to minimize their risk," Hardekofp said. "To do that, the easiest way is by using your Social Security number to check your credit score."

If that's what this is about, we have no beef with AmEx doing credit checks on its customers. One might even be impertinent enough to point out that had more banks taken this action in the past, we might not be dealing with a credit crisis right now.

But that does not change the fact that it is possible to perform credit checks without an SSN. Credit reporting agencies highly encourage companies to get an SSN for accuracy's sake, but it's not required.

Now, I know a bunch of you are wondering why Murray is in such a snit over providing his SSN when so many businesses require it to do just about anything, from opening an iPhone account with AT&T to requesting utility service from BGE.

We've said this before and we'll say it again: Businesses should not use SSNs as a form of identification. The fact that they now do so commonly is extremely troubling, especially when you consider the millions of security breaches of customer data that occur every week.

While some government agencies have a right to your SSN under the law, most businesses don't. Many privacy experts go so far as to suggest that SSNs should be given to businesses only when tax consequences are involved, such as when you open a bank account, buy a house, buy stocks or get a job.

There is no law that prevents a private business from requesting the number from you. But like Murray, you should decline to share it.

Sure, it will cause you problems. But if enough consumers take this position, then companies will begin to realize that they can't treat SSNs so casually.

In Murray's case, Gonzalez called him Tuesday to tell him it would take a week to respond to his complaint. But less than 10 minutes after he got off the phone with Gonzalez, the assistant to AmEx's chief executive contacted Murray to tell him his card would be activated. Less than 30 minutes later, she called again to activate Murray's card - sans SSN.

Here's guessing Murray's SSN wasn't so "essential" after all.

Reach Consuming Interests by e-mail at consuminginterests@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6151. Find an archive of Consuming Interest columns at baltimoresun.com/consuming. Read the blog at baltimore sun.com/consuminginterests.

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