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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Born in the 1930s, the Social Security numbering system was created to track U.S. workers’ earnings history and determine their benefit entitlement.

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“Supposedly, its limitation on use got thrown right out the window within about a decade. Ever since that time, we’ve done nothing but thoroughly abuse it,” said nationally recognized fraud expert Andrew Richards, of Fraud Investigative Service in Pittsburgh.

Now, it’s being used by countless private companies and government agencies.

“You’re applying for anything, they want your Social Security number. So, it’s everywhere. People call you on the phone, they want your Social Security number,” said Paige Sebesse.

According to Richards, the widespread use and abuse puts us at an increased risk of having our identity stolen.

“Anticipate that people are going to steal it. That it’s going to be abused in some way, and put up those mechanisms that you can,” said Richards.

The big question: do you give it out?

“No, I do not,” said Scott Johnson.

“It depends how bad I need whatever it is I’m applying for. I tend to be a little bit leery about it if it’s not something super important or something I absolutely need,” said Megan Melamed.

Richards recommends three steps every time you’re asked for your number.

“Just because they ask for it, doesn’t mean you give it. And not only that, it doesn’t always mean that you’ve got to give all of the numbers,” said Richards.

First, ask yourself who reached out to whom?

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“Normally, I don’t give it out unless I’m at a reputable place like a doctor’s office or I’m at my bank or something like that,” said Sebesse.

Be especially leery if they reached out to you.

“I would never send it out – especially online. I don’t do anything online,” said Bill Brower.

According to Richards, “There are so many job opportunities that are put online that in fact are bogus. They’re scams, and they are looking for your identifiers.”

Second – ask why they need it? If it’s a private company wanting to run a credit check, for instance, you can always ask if you can pay on a cash basis.

“I just don’t give it out, ya know? Sometimes they’ll ask for your last four. Sometimes that’s protocol for some things,” said Johnson.

Third, see if their purpose requires your full number?

“If you’re giving the last four digits, that’s the better option, but I don’t want anybody thinking that that is the end-all to your security if you only give out the last four. The thing is that with other identifiers, the address, your date of birth, your name, the last four digits, a lot of damage can be done without having the full Social Security number,” said Richards.

Banks, for example, will need your full number. It’s required under the Bank Secrecy Act.

“If you’ve got good credit, don’t put your name out there and your number,” said John Flannigan.

According to Richards, it’s critical to check your credit reports often. By law, you are entitled to one free report every year from Experian, Equifax, and Transunion. Parents, request and review them for your children too.

“The uptick on the theft of Social Security numbers of children is starting to occur because they are a clean slate,” said Richards.

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Finally, be sure to set up fraud alerts on all of your credit cards.