According to the U.S. Department of Justice, identity theft struck at least one person over the age of 12 in 7 percent of households in 2010. Identity theft doesn't happen solely by adding your Social Security number to an online application, but it's certainly possible unless you take steps to mitigate the risk. Ensuring that you're applying to a legitimate company and keeping your antivirus program and browser up to date will minimize the chances your number ends up in the wrong hands.
Legitimate Companies and Protected Sites
Provide your Social Security number to a legitimate company through a protected site. There are only two ways you run the risk of identity theft: someone at the company steals your Social Security number, or your computer has a key-logger. Look at the address bar once you're on the application page that requires your Social Security number. At the left or right of the address bar, you should see "Https," typically colored gray or green, and a padlock. Instead of seeing "https" colored green, you might see the company's name colored green on the right side of the search bar. These features indicate you're visiting an encrypted website. If you do not see them, do not enter your Social Security number, even if you're certain the company you're applying to is legitimate.
Encrypted websites do not protect your Social Security number from being stolen if your computer is infected by a key-logger. Key-loggers are malicious software applications that collect information as you input it into your computer. Keep your virus protection up to date, and perform daily scans. Do not use public computers as a means to apply for jobs. Although those computers should have antivirus software, it's possible hardware key-loggers have been connected to the computer.
Keep Your Browser Updated
Do not use an outdated browser, especially one that's a few years old. Companies release new browser iterations regularly, and you can update your browser for free. Older browser iterations may have security flaws that put you at risk for identity theft, from minor vulnerabilities to poor or even nonexistent protection against phishing scams. Phishing scams steal your identity by directing you to a website that exists solely to extract any and all information you enter. These websites sometimes feature a fake company's information, while others look like a carbon copy of a legitimate company's website and application section. When you enter your Social Security number, you're actually sending it to the scammer rather than a reputable company. Modern browsers protect against many phishing scams by tossing up a warning page if the browser detects such a scam.
According to U.S. News and World Report, Pam Dixon of the World Privacy Forum suggests keeping your Social Security number to yourself when filling out an application. Employers typically only need your number when performing a background check and for tax purposes. Most companies perform background checks as one of the final steps in the hiring process, and tax information doesn't come into play until after you're hired. But forgoing your number during the application process isn't always possible. Some online applications require you to fill in the Social Security box before you continue with the application. If that's the case, you should feel safe entering your number as long as you see a green "https" or a green company name, a padlock, you're using an updated browser and you have an up-to-date antivirus.