Late one night last weekend, we got one of those phone calls you hate: A credit card had been used to buy hundreds of dollars of electronics in a distant city. It was a week-old card, used only twice by us. But somewhere, somehow, someone was using its numbers.
Rarely a day goes by that you don't hear of credit card hacking, database breeches or identity theft, sometimes on massive scales made possible by digitization. Stopping the card is a pain, as is fixing false charges. But, in the end, it's usually "just money" at stake.
What's worse for victims than stolen credit cards is identity theft, usually accomplished through appropriating Social Security numbers. Small wonder that many job hunters don't want to put their SSNs on job applications, especially when the applications are on the Internet.
This isn't a new thing. Applicants have resisted handing over their SSNs for years, whether they're penciling in a line on a paper form or sending it off in cyberspace on an employer's Web page.
Yet, simply because it's legal, quicker and easier for employers to get the number at the outset, job applications continue to demand it. Getting SSNs up front saves employers from taking time later to request them, if and when they pursue applicants to investigate, interview and maybe hire.
"I always quit the application rather than make my SSN vulnerable," job hunter "Bernard" wrote me this month. "I will not let my teens give out this info either on applications, which often means that they are not able to apply to many jobs."
When a job application is filled out in person, there's sometimes a way for the applicant to have a face-to-face discussion with the employer. But it's usually impossible to be able to say, "I'll be happy to provide my Social Security number when you want to do a background check in connection with a possible job offer."
Employment law attorneys — the ones who advise corporate clients — agree that, ideally, employers wouldn't request SSNs until they're ready to check out job finalists. But the ideal isn't the real. Privacy and security experts have had scant success persuading employers to leave off their SSN demands until later in the hiring process.
Job hunters have to weigh priorities. Do you really want to pursue this job? Or do you really want to protect your SSN? Putting the job first can expose you to risk. Putting security first can cause you, like Bernard and his offspring, to miss out on job possibilities.
If you choose to proceed with the application, it's vital to look for the lock symbol or other Internet security alerts when filling out an online application. That should help ease some electronic theft concerns. But hacks happen anyway. And really, SSN theft can happen from a handwritten application, too. It's better to hand it directly to the human resource department or hiring manager than to leave it in a basket or hand it to someone else in the building.