Q: I’m uneasy about providing my Social Security number on a rental application. Should I worry about sharing that information?

A: You are right to worry about providing personal credit information. In November, the Federal Trade Commission reported that 8.3 million U.S. adults had been victims of identity theft in 2005.

In response to consumer concerns, the federal government has focused its attention on the use and abuse of credit report information. The Federal Fair Credit Reporting Act regulates who may obtain your information, how it may be used, and what penalties can be levied against those who flout the law. The site can be accessed at www.ftc.gov.

Several sections apply to landlords, including the circumstances under which credit information may be collected. According to the FTC site, credit reports can be requested only for the purposes of extending credit; reviewing or collecting a debt; applying for employment; underwriting insurance; or in connection with some other legitimate business transaction.

A rental application is a legitimate business purpose, and landlords are allowed under the law to request a credit report. Do you have to provide your Social Security number on the rental application? No. But in order to run the credit request, the applicant’s full name, current address and Social Security number must be provided to ensure the validity of the report.

On the plus side, new laws have turned the tables on those requesting credit information, requiring landlords to provide their own professional and personal data before dashing off and running credit reports on others. As a result, landlords calling for that credit report are held in closer scrutiny than ever before.

While all landlords have to belong to some sort of apartment owners’ association or screening service in order to obtain credit reports, not all services interpret or comply with the FTC rules in the same way.

Last year, one of the largest apartment owners’ associations in the country, the Apartment Owners Association of Southern California (AOA), set the standard by implementing new procedures to comply with the FTC law. AOA members, which include landlords and management companies, had to submit newly required documents to the AOA, including a service agreement that outlined the FTC rules. Members signing the service agreement also had to provide a legible photocopy of their driver’s license and until they did so, credit reports were not processed.

Proof of member compliance varies, depending on factors such as type of property management business and credit providers, including TransUnion, Experian and Equifax.

Some credit providers require individual property owners to give solid proof of ownership, such as a copy of the county assessor’s tax bill, grant deed or utility bill. Management companies and rental corporations are required to provide information that includes proof of formal contract with the individual authorized to use the credit information. Rental corporations must also pay a fee for an onsite inspection for the properties they wish to obtain credit reports for.

Other credit providers require individual landlords to provide completed and properly signed rental applications for each rental property. An annual physical inspection of each business may also be mandatory. Landlords can be asked to show proof of adequate security, such as locked filing cabinets to protect rental information.

What happens when a prospective tenant fills out a rental application? Generally, when a call is made by the landlord or his or her representative to the credit screening office, the operator asks for the specific information that identifies the account holder and name of the individual calling. If the numbers or information doesn’t match up, the request may be rejected.

The only drawback? Not all landlords belong to a credit service that requires them to submit proper credit-use paperwork. How can you tell if that’s the case? Simply ask. Whoever requests the credit report should know the answer.

Finally, always ask for a copy of the processed credit report. Not only is it free, but it provides proof it was actually run and includes the name of the person to contact if you have any questions about the report.

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