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By Herb Weisbaum
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/10/2006 1:08:32 PM ET 2006-04-10T17:08:32

We all have to fill out forms. There are forms to fill out at the hospital, forms to complete at the dentist, at the bank, etc. But Ruth from Washington wants to know when is it OK to fill in your Social Security number on forms that ask for it.

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My husband went to a new dentist and on the forms you fill out when seeing a new doctor is a space for a Social Security number. When my husband said he didn’t want to give out the number, he was told the dentist needed it for identification and insurance purposes. I know our insurance ID number with Premera Blue Cross no longer has anything to do with our SSN. Do you think people should willingly give out their SSN anywhere?
Ruth R., Mountlake Terrace, WA

You have every reason to guard your Social Security number and give it out only when absolutely necessary. Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, says there is “a significant amount of evidence showing ID theft cases emanate from medical offices.”

Many insurance companies, including Premera Blue Cross, no longer use the Social Security number as a primary identifier and no longer print it on their ID cards.

So why would the new dentist want your husband’s Social Security number if he already provided his insurance information? Nabil Istafanos, Premera’s Vice President of Compliance and Ethics, says the Social Security number is often needed “when coordinating benefits among different insurance carriers.”

Some patients have coverage from both their own job and their spouse’s employer. In those situations Social Security numbers are still used to figure out what part of the claim each carrier should pay. Your Premera ID number means nothing to other health insurance companies, but they can identify you through your Social Security number. In addition, all Medicare claims are based on a patient’s Social Security number.

If your new doctor is asking for a Social Security number, ask if they really need it. If you need a simple procedure, at a small office, only one insurance company is involved, and there’s no Medicare claim, your insurance ID number may be enough. Just remember, if there’s any sort of problem with processing the claim, the lack of a Social Security number could slow down reimbursement.

Also, there are no laws prohibiting a medical provider from denying service if you refuse to supply your Social Security number, according to Givens.

Social Security history
The Social Security number was never designed to be a personal identifier. In fact, when the Social Security law was passed in 1935, the Social Security Account Number, its original name, was meant to identify the account, not the person.

That’s not the case today. There are few prohibitions against the use of the Social Security number in the private sector and it is widely used by the federal government. It is “in such extraordinarily wide use” it has become “a de facto personal identifier,” according to a Health and Human Services White Paper.

In July of 1998, the Department of Health and Human Services proposed creating a unique identifier for health purposes. Using a number other than the patient’s Social Security number would increase privacy and limit the health provider’s access to a patient’s credit and financial information. No action has been taken on this proposal.

What software packages do you recommend for spyware protection?  I have a Microsoft XP operating system.
Jayne B.

Your simple question has a complicated answer because spyware is a moving target. A number of consumer publications rate antispyware programs regularly, but they don’t always agree on which ones are the best. Even at the same publication the winners tend to change each time there’s a new round of testing. 

And because hackers keep changing their tactics, software developers must constantly upgrade their products to offer the latest defenses. If they fall behind, a top-rated program can quickly become ineffective.

For example, the April 2005 issue of PC World magazine gave CounterSpy 1.0 top marks for removing 85 percent of the test spyware. But when the magazine tested CounterSpy 1.029 for its November 2005 issue, the updated version only snagged 66 percent of the spyware and got a much lower rating.

Spyware programs
If you already have antivirus, antispam, and firewall software, here are some stand-alone spyware programs to consider:

  • Webroot's Spy Sweeper 4.5: PC World magazine gave it the highest overall score and a “Best Buy” rating for removing 90 percent of spyware components in test computers. The magazine said it’s “the most powerful antispyware tool we’ve seen yet.” And it’s their new Editors’ Choice. Consumer Reports also gave Spy Sweeper high marks for its many features and ease of use.
  • Microsoft's Windows Defender (Beta 2):  Defender, once named Microsoft Windows AntiSpyware (MWAS), is still in beta form and available for free download. While still named MWAS, the editors at PC Magazine said “it's getting better by the day.” They found the program to be “quite effective at removing spyware but less so at blocking its initial installation.” The program is also PC World’s top-rated free program, with 3.5 out of 5 stars. However, it caught only 66 percent of the test spyware, far less than some of the paid programs. Consumer Reports gave MWAS top marks, higher than any paid software it tested. The editors said it is an “excellent main spyware program with real-time protection.”

All-in-one programs
If you’re looking for software that gives you a firewall and tackles spam, spyware and viruses, consider these top-rated, all-in-one suites:

  • Panda Software's Platinum Internet Security: This was the highest-scoring suite in PC World’s latest tests (they used the 2005 edition), earning a “Best Buy” rating. The editors said it removed spyware “without forcing us to make case-by-case decisions.” PC Magazine also tested the 2006 version and concluded it “will do a decent job of keeping your PC safe.” The magazine said Panda Platinum “does some things very well (virus protection), other things quite well (spyware protection), and still other things poorly (spam blocking).”
  • ZoneAlarm Security Suite 6.0: Zone Alarm is also an Editors’ Choice at PC Magazine. They said it “really does ace the competition” and provides “the best software protection you can add to your connected PC.” The program is also an Editors’ Choice at CNET, where it earned 8 out of 10 points. CNET said the Zone Alarm Suite “puts Norton and McAfee to shame with its easy-to-use triple-layer firewall, antivirus, antispam, and now antispyware features.”

I leased a Toyota Prius for 4 years on December 21, 2005. My tax preparer says I am not entitled to the deduction for hybrid vehicles because I didn’t buy it. What’s the difference? I’m still saving the environment.
Pat H., Louisville, Kentucky

As far as I can tell, IRS Publication 535, which deals with the clean-fuel vehicle deduction, does not directly address your question. It says the hybrid must be “acquired” for your own use, but it doesn’t specifically say you have to buy it and it doesn’t specifically say a lease won’t qualify.

When I asked the Internal Revenue Service for clarification they e-mailed me the following statement:

“Generally, the deduction is available only to the taxpayer that owns the vehicle. Thus, if the vehicle is leased, the lessor generally is the party entitled to the deduction. The determination of whether a particular lease is more properly regarded as a sale depends on the terms of that lease. Generally, however, most standard "lease" arrangements by commercial automobile manufacturers and dealers are regarded as leases under federal income tax principles.”

And yet, according to Greg Rosica, a contributing author to the 2006 Ernst & Young Tax Guide, there are “clearly accounting provisions that treat certain leases as purchases based on the financial terms of the lease, so an argument may exist to treat the lease in this manner.”

However, this is not an area of tax law with a clear answer, says Rosica. “I have not seen any definitive guidance on this topic from Treasury,” he says. There is a potential recapture rule for dispositions within three years, he notes, so a lease of this period could certainly create a problem.

Where does this leave you? You might want to speak to another tax advisor about taking this deduction. Just remember the risk, if you claim the deduction and the IRS rejects your claim, you will owe additional taxes.

By the way, starting this year the clean fuel deduction is replaced with a credit, which is an even stronger incentive to buy a qualifying hybrid. The new tax credit for hybrid vehicles applies to those purchased on or after January 1, 2006. Rosica says there seems to be some language in The Energy Policy Act of 2005regarding leased hybrids qualifying for the new credit. We should know more about it after we get through this tax season.

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