Rental Application social security numberFinding a house or an apartment to rent is a stressful process, especially if you live in an overcrowded area. In big cities like New York City or San Francisco, open houses can wind up feeling more like you’re on a cutthroat competition game show than simply going to look at an apartment. Most landlords and rental companies provide rental applications that ask for a gamut of information about you, including your name, contact information, previous rental history and social security number. Although it is tempting to do what you can to secure that dream home before anyone else can take your spot, it’s important to keep your head about you. Giving out your personal information to just anyone can make you that much more of a target for identity theft. It’s important to be cautious, especially when it comes to your social security number. Before you volunteer your social, here are a couple of things you should think about: Are you required to put your social on a rental application? What are the consequences if you don’t?

Do I have to put my social security number on a rental application?

The short answer: No. However, there is no law that forbids landlords from asking for a prospective tenant’s social security number on a rental application. In fact, some landlords may even require it and refuse to consider your application until you provide your social security number. The reason is so they can run a credit check of a potential renter, which is a common, legal practice. Fortunately, you do have several options other than writing your social security number down on the initial form.

1. Leave the space blank — but let the landlord know why. Potentially dozens of people might end up applying for the same rental unit, which means there is a strong chance your application might not even be considered. If you wrote your social security number down, this means it might end up in the trash for anyone to find. That’s why if you fill out an application that asks for your social security number, it’s best to leave that part blank as long as you let the landlord know why — and assure them if you are seriously considered for the apartment, you will provide the necessary information to run the credit check.

2. Obtain your own credit reports. This might not work in every case, but some landlords may accept a copy of your credit reports which you obtained yourself. By law, you are entitled to a free copy of your reports from each of the three credit bureaus (TransUnion, Equifax and Experian) once per year through AnnualCreditReport.com. If you haven’t obtained your yearly copies yet, you should get them and be sure to print at least one copy. Offer copies of these reports to prospective landlords in lieu of them running their own credit check. Some may still prefer to run your credit themselves, but it is worth a try. At the very least, viewing your credit reports will give you an idea of what will show up so you can be better prepared.

3. Request that your application be destroyed after it is reviewed. If you do end up having to provide your social security number, be sure to ask for the total destruction of the application once the review process is complete. Ask that the documents are shredded — or, if it’s an online application, the files completely wiped. Most large rental companies likely have a privacy policy, but those renting individual units might not be in the know, so it’s best to inquire about what happens to documents or files with your information.

Why it’s important to protect your social security number

Your social security number is the most precious and vulnerable part of the personal information that makes up your identity. A thief with access to your social can wreak much more devastation than someone armed with just your name or even your bank account number. Social security numbers can be used to open up utilities accounts and credit cards, take out loans and mortgages and even access medical or government benefits. A person with your social security number could even attach it to a different birth date and create a whole new identity. The worst part about social security fraud is that all too often victims don’t find out until it is too late and a whole lot of damage has been done. It can take months or even years to recover from identity theft. This is why it is so important to guard your social security number as closely as possible.

Fortunately, you can get help with protecting your identity by signing up for an identity theft protection service. These services monitor black market websites, public records and other places for your personal information, including your social security number, to ensure it’s not being illegally traded, sold or used. Many let you set up alerts that will inform you immediately if any suspicious activity has occurred. While they can’t totally prevent identity theft from happening, an identity theft protection service can help you catch criminals in their tracks and recover your identity if the worst should happen.