With a look of disbelief, Audra M. Fink, program specialist with the Idaho State Treasurer's Office, watched as the 70-something-year-old woman walked away.
"She just told me that she wouldn't give out her Social Security number, because, she's learned you never give it out, " Fink says.
Fink had a legitimate need for the woman's number: It's required by the state to connect unclaimed property with its rightful owner. But Fink said this isn't the first time she's been challenged about the legitimacy of the program and the need for the number.
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More than $120 million in unclaimed assets in Idaho are just waiting to be claimed. Annually, millions of dollars are turned over to the state of Idaho; these properties may include stocks, bonds, mutual funds, bank accounts, uncashed payroll checks, utility deposits, traveler's checks, contents from safety deposit boxes and more.
"It is our mission to reunite this unclaimed property with the rightful owner, " Fink says. "But to do so, we need certain information, and that includes your Social Security number."
The woman who walked away from Fink visited Scam Jam in Hailey last week. More than 120 people throughout the Wood River region attended the daylong seminar. Organizations across the community unite to educate the public about various schemes and frauds being plied against the public, many of which seek your personal financial information, including your Social Security number. The Better Business Bureau has a representative on Scam Jam's board.
"We're getting the message out, " said Patty Highley, chairwoman of this year's Scam Jam committee. "People are learning not to give out their information. The more we educate them, the more attentive they become."
This year the board put together four Scam Jam events around the state. State, civic and nonprofit groups participate on the statewide board.
Social Security numbers were originally created to accurately track each individual's earnings and to monitor the benefits paid under the federal Social Security program. But Social Security numbers made handy general identifiers, so their use grew. The numbers became the most widely used and convenient identifiers for all record-keeping systems.
Laws require you to disclose your number in certain situations. While the BBB cannot give you a comprehensive list, most federal and state agencies, employers, mortgage agencies and banks generally require it for certain applications.
If a business or other enterprise asks for your number, you can refuse to disclose it, though that may mean doing without a particular purchase or service.
For example, utility companies and other services ask for Social Security numbers but do not need them; they can do credit checks or identify people in their records by alternative means. Doctors, dentists, car mechanics or any number of companies do not need them either.
Giving your Social Security number is voluntary, even when you are asked for it directly.
If requested, you should ask why your number is needed, how your number will be used, what law requires you to give it and what the consequences are if you refuse. The answers to these questions can help you decide if you want to give it.
Guard your number as if your life may depend on it, because it is your life - in a sense.
"I'm glad I have to persuade them to give me their numbers, " Fink says. "It means they're guarding it closely."