Social Security numbers may not be so secure

Government use of the 9-digit number is on the rise
WASHINGTON When it comes to protecting that all-important identifier, your Social Security number, the federal government's advice is clear:  We should guard those numbers.

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But this is the same government that revolves around the nine-digit number, slapping it on pieces of paper that 52 million Americans carry on their person every day.

The numbers are on documents like 44 million Medicare cards, 8 million Defense Department cards --  easy prey for prying eyes.

The government admits it's contradicting its own advice, but says don't expect anything to change soon.

 "It is very expensive to change over those systems and it is going to take time," said Joel Winston with the Federal Trade Commission.

"We have estimated half a billion dollars just really for the Medicare systems," said Medicare Chief Operating Officer Charlene Frizzera.

So what is a person to do?  Some companies offer identity protection. LifeLock's CEO Todd Davis even offers his own Social Security number for public display, confident his system works.

The government says memorize your Social Security number and leave the card at home. But 44 million people with Medicare cards need to carry them.

Health care providers insist on it for doctor visits and emergencies -- or do they? "Our advice is don't carry it with you unless you know you're going to need it, If there is an emergency there are ways they could, in fact, provide you the care without your actual card," said Frizzera.

Sixty-five-year-old Jimmy Allen is retired, and worried.  "Certain businesses you deal with, they want to know your Social Security number.  I don't deal with them. I don't give that up, but I have to give that up medically, and I think our government should do something about that. "

Medicaid says individuals have nothing to worry about.  "We don't have any cases reported of a Social Security number being stolen because of a Medicare card theft," Frizzera said.

Since its birth in the 1930s, Social Security has promised protection.

Now it's the number that may pose a hazard to individuals.

The government could use another system, but implementing it would take years.

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