Q: I was recently given an assignment with a local magazine and the editor asked me for my Social Security number. I'm uncomfortable handing out that type of information and wonder if it’s normal for editors to ask for it. Or am I just being paranoid? —Anonymous
A: It's not unreasonable to be wary of handing out your personal information. But in this case, you probably don't have a choice if you want to get paid.
Publishing companies (or any company for that matter) are required by law to report all payments of $600 or more to non-employees to the Internal Revenue Service (I.R.S.). Even if your payment is lower than $600, it's standard practice for most companies to gather all that information not only for accounting purposes but also because they want to cover themselves in case you do more work for them and cross that $600 mark.
There are a few measures you can—and should—take to protect yourself, though. When given a writing assignment or a book deal, most publishers will send you a contract that asks for your address, contact info, Social Security number, etc. If an editor ever asks you over the phone for that info, you may want to inquire about getting the request in writing. You don't want to hand out that information unless you have a legally binding contract that includes your pay rate.
And, if you're still uncomfortable handing out your personal Social Security number, you can always apply for an Employer Identification Number, or EIN. It's a federal tax ID number given to businesses specifically for tax purposes. Writing is your business, so you qualify. There is no cost and the process is pretty easy. Just go to irs.gov and search for "Employer Identification Number." You'll find more information and be able to apply online immediately.