The Social Security number is overused and abused by hospitals, banks, and even retailers, putting millions of Americans at risk of identity theft. But experts say it doesn’t have to be this way.

Social Security numbers may be the worst kept secrets in America.

But the originators of the individualized codes first distributed in 1936 by the Social Security Administration never intended them to become de facto identifiers relied on by hospitals, insurers, banks, cable companies, and even retailers.

“Unfortunately, it’s becoming so ubiquitous, and so many businesses are being breached, that it’s the skeleton key to your life,” says Adam Levin, chairman of IDT911 , an identity protection firm. “It’s a social insecurity number at this point.”

And as a result, the Social Security Number (SSN) has become a valuable commodity among fraudsters and identity thieves. When crooks have it – along with your name and date of birth – they can use it not only to take over existing bank accounts but also to open new ones and access benefits and health care in your name.

The Identity Theft Resource Center reports that the number of breached records with SSNs totaled more than 164.4 million in 2015. And it’s not just bad actors hacking online databases — hard drives are stolen from doctors’ offices; paper records are left unsecured.

But experts such as Levin – and even the Social Security Administration – say that people should be guarded about giving over their SSNs, stop writing it down on forms at doctors’ offices, and push back when anyone asks for it.

“People are not required to give their number to private businesses,” said a spokesperson at the Social Security Administration, which advises people not to carry their Social Security cards on them and to closely guard their numbers. “The Social Security number is used to keep a record of workers’ earning and to monitor benefits paid under the Social Security program.”

The number of organizations asking for SSNs has “grown consistently every few years,” says Sean McCleskey, director of organizational education and measurement at the Center for Identity at the University of Texas at Austin. School lunch programs, public assistance, and food stamps – funded by federal money – all require a SSN from participants. “But one of the biggest problems with SSNs is the medical field. They can get it but they don’t really need it.”

The medical industry may be the biggest collectors – and holders – of Americans’ SSNs. And while doctors commonly request SSNs, they rarely require them.

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November 21, 2016 By Grace Dobush, Christian Science Monitor