(Bloomberg) -- David Haas doesn't like to give out his Social Security number. He fends off all therequests he can, from doctors, credit card companies, thebureaucracy at large. In the end, it was summer camp that gothim.

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"If the camp refuses your child because you won't divulge yourSocial Security number, you end up giving in," said the FranklinLakes, N.J., financial planner. Haas kind of caved to hisdaughter's school, too.

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Don't be too hard on him. It is the number that rules usall.

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Social Security numbers, which identify theretirement accounts Americans build up over a lifetime of paycheckdeductions, are taken in the vast majority of data breaches,simply because they are ubiquitous.

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They're a juicy target. Together with other basicinformation, like name and date of birth, the Social Securitynumber is a passport to a person's identity. Unlike a creditcard number, which can be instantlycanceled, the SSN serves most people for theirentire lives, with some 496 million issued since the first batch ofcards went out in 1936. Its use asauthentication for personal accounts hasexpanded the opportunity for fraud.

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The government has tried to lessen our dependenceon the Social Security number as the ultimate identifier andauthenticator—for example, some states ask for a driver's licenseor state ID on income tax forms. Within its own ranks, the federalgovernment is locked in a struggle to reduce the "unnecessarycollection, use and display" of the number.

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In 2007, a presidential task force issued recommendationsto "help prevent the theft and misuse of consumer's personalinformation." A decade later, on May 23, the GovernmentAccountability Office testified about a GAO progressreport on executive branch efforts to address therecommendations. The verdict: "These initiatives have had limitedsuccess." Among the initiatives was a proposed"alternative federal employee identifier" on Office of PersonnelManagement forms. That was abandoned as impractical "without analternate governmentwide employee identifier in place."

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An estimated 17.6 million people, or some 7 percent of Americanresidents 16 or older, suffered at least one instance of identitytheft in 2014, the latest year of data available from theBureau of Justice Statistics. And that was before mega-breacheslike the one at the health insurer Anthem and at theOffice of Personnel Management itself.

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"We are bleeding fraud with the use of SSNs," said EvaVelasquez, chief executive officer of the non-profit Identity TheftResource Center, which helps victims of identity theft.

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Attempts to check the SSN's proliferation have beenfailing for nearly half a century. As early as 1971, a SocialSecurity Administration task force proposed that the agency takea " 'cautious and conservative position' toward SSN useand do nothing to promote the use of the SSN as anidentifier," according to The Story of the Social SecurityNumber, on the agency's web site. No luck.

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How about fingerprints? Government agencies including theVeterans Administration and the Post Office have tried them,but they came with the whiff of criminality. The baldstring of numbers seemed the more practical way togo.

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In its early days, the SSN wasn't widely treated assacrosanct. In 1938, a wallet manufacturer in New York, whichwanted to advertise how well those new Social Securitycards fit into its billfold, used the actual number ofits treasurer's secretary, one Mrs. Hilda Schrader Whitcher.Mrs. Whitcher's secret identifier (078-05-1120) was soon ondisplay at Woolworth and other department stores around thecountry.

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By 1943, nearly 6,000 people were using her number,according to the Social Security Administration, which voidedit. Over the years, more than 40,000 people claimed the number astheir own, and 12 people were found to be using it as late as1977.

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"They started using the number. They thought it was their own,"the real 078-05-1120 said, according to a history on the SocialSecurity Administration web site. "I can't understand how peoplecan be so stupid."

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Since then, many companies and government agencies, while usingSSNs internally, have at least stopped displaying them on IDcards and using them as subscriber numbers. Many useunique numbers, sent to a recognized device such as acellphone, in place of the familiar request for the lastfour digits of the Social.

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Some have suggested creating individual encryption keys, sort oflike the code-generating tokens that workers use to access theircomputers from outside the office. Another idea, a nationalidentification card, "creeps people out, because it seems veryOrwellian," Velasquez said.

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Even creepier, she said, one frustrated consumerproposed that the government "just microchip me so youcan scan me and thieves can't dig it out of me."

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Until we all get chipped, the only person who can sharplycurb the use of your Social Security number is you.

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"Don't blindly provide it because you're asked for it,"said Gary Davis, chief consumer security evangelistfor anti-virus software provider McAfee.

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The tricky part is that you can be denied service. The SocialSecurity Administration recommends asking why the number isneeded, how it will be used, what will happen if you refuse to giveit, and what law requires you to give the number to aprivate business. For example, there's no legal reason youmust give it to your doctor. Doctors almost always askfor it, though, sometimes because they're using outdated forms, orfor patients on Medicare, since your Medicare numberis your Social Security number.

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On income tax forms and financial accounts that wendtheir way to the Treasury Department, the ritual asking for andgiving of the Social Security number is all but inevitable.Same with food stamps, child support enforcement programs,and state commercial driver licensing programs. Credit bureauTransUnion says the nine-digit wonder isindispensable.

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"We consider the SSN to be an important part of theconsumer reporting and credit granting ecosystem, and manyregulators and consumer advocates recommend this approach, whereavailable, for accuratematching," TransUnion spokesman DaveBlumberg said in an email. "The SSN is also an importanttool in identity verification and can help lenders to detect andprevent identity theft."

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Opening a bank or brokerage account requires a customeridentification number, most likely a Social Security number orIndividual Taxpayer Identity Number, according toanti-money-laundering provisions in the Patriot Act, the securitylaw passed after the 2001 terror attacks.

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An auto insurer might demand the Social to ensure,say, that the credit information for an applicant is reallyfor the driver operating the vehicle.

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Life insurers want it because it's a good way to find a "lost"policyholder, or find out if the policyholder has died, byconsulting the Social Security Master Death File, said LorettaWorters of the Insurance Information Institute. An SSNcan also help find beneficiaries, she said.

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Still, if in doubt, ask: Why do you need it? How willyou use it? Do I really have to give it?

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New Medicare cards are going out without the SSN on them,but for those over 65 the number is sitting intheir wallet. Medicare has until April 2019 tocomply with a 2015 law requiring it to create aMedicare Beneficiary Identifier.

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An MBI generator will initially assign 150 million new11-character identifiers made up of numbers and capitalletters. Hassle alert: The transition will run from April 1,2018, through December 31, 2019, the Medicare web sitesays. Medicare notes that the MBIs "will not containinappropriate combinations of numbers or strings that may beoffensive." Because, of course, that's our big worry.

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The Social Security Administration is taking action, too.On June 10, Americans will need to turn onmulti-factor authentication on their My SocialSecurity accounts, which have been targeted by thieves settingup accounts using stolen SSNs to collect benefits.

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As for Haas's kids, or, more to the point, yours, theAmerican Camp Association says it doesn't require member camps togather SSNs. But browsing through camp applications online, onefinds the camper's Social, or its last four digits, in demand oncamp financial aid forms, authorization forms for medicalemergencies, and so forth, sometimes accompanied by a promiseto destroy the documents at the end of the season.

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Will the U.S. ever break its addiction to the Social Securitynumber? The Office of Personnel Management did begin exploring theuse of "multiple alternate identifiers for different programsand agencies" in 2015, the GAO report said. The idea was tocollect a Social Security number just once, when an employeestarted working, and then use different identifiers for differentprograms, like health-care benefits. The work was put onhold for lack of funding.

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Some fear we're just going to come up with another uniqueidentifier that can be compromised, said Velasquez, of theIdentity Theft Resource Center. But she's hoping somethingwill happen in her lifetime. She's 45.

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