This article has been updated from a previous version
While house hunting in Toronto’s nightmare of a rental market, a landlord said he needed my passport and Social Insurance Number (SIN) to run a background check as part of my apartment rental application.
Keep in mind, this was three months into my search. So, between multiple failed applications, dealing with discrimination, and fierce competition, I was getting desperate.
I’d never given out my SIN except for employment and tax purposes, so I confided in a close friend who documented my ordeal, and she advised me to politely decline and ask if there was any other documentation I could provide instead.
To which the landlord replied, “Unfortunately, I’m sorry to say that I have decided to move forward with another, more qualified applicant.”
Can landlords ask for your SIN number?
I can’t prove that not providing my SIN hurt the chances of my application being rejected, but I think it’s telling that the landlord didn’t address my privacy concerns or potentially, didn’t even know that providing a SIN is not legally required from prospective tenants.
In fact, The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s (OPC) states that “organizations that request SIN outside of a legal requirement must clearly mark it as optional” — something the landlord didn’t do on his apartment listing.
To clarify, a landlord can ask for your SIN when you are filling out an application to rent a property or negotiating a lease with a landlord, according to the Government of Canada. But you aren’t required to provide it.
Even the practice of asking for one’s SIN is “strongly discouraged, but it’s not illegal,” according to the government, due to the potential of SIN-related identity fraud.
In the case of having to hand over their SIN number to a prospective landlord, individuals are advised to ask why their SIN is being requested, how it will be used, and who it might be shared with.
It’s important to remember that landlords aren’t allowed to refuse your application if you decline to provide your SIN.
“No one can force you to provide it regardless of the application source,” says Juliet Craig, mediation specialist at Rental Affiliate and moderator of the Facebook group, Black Housing Directory (Renting While Black) Toronto, a resource I used when house hunting.
“There is other government identification one can present that should be more than sufficient,” she says.
What information can a landlord ask for in Ontario?
To run a credit check, OPC says the landlord would need to ask for your name, address, and date of birth.
“A prospective landlord must have your consent to share your personal information with any third party or organization, such as a credit reporting agency,” Craig says.
In other words, putting your SIN number on a rental application is not required because a landlord doesn’t need your SIN to run a credit check. If they demand your SIN and other personal information as a condition of renting, contact an advocacy agency in your province or territory. It’s free to file a complaint.
The dangers of giving out your SIN number
It’s valid to ask yourself: “should I give my SIN number to a landlord?”
The reality is, recovering from identity theft can take years.
“The problem is a social insurance number can be compromised, and if this information were to fall into the wrong hands, it can cause enormous harm,” says Ann Cavoukian, executive director of the Global Privacy & Security by Design Centre.
There are serious financial repercussions from identity theft.
An Equifax report on the lasting impact of identity theft explains that from filing police reports to re-establishing credit, it can take some time for victims to get finances back in order.
As Ontario’s former privacy commissioner for 17 years, Cavoukian saw a number of identity theft victims and urges people to be very careful about who they provide personal information to.
“A SIN and a name are sufficient to perpetrate identity theft, meaning you can impersonate them, and you can rack up charges under their name,” Cavoukian says.
“[A landlord] may be well-intentioned, but unless they really secure the data, then it can be used by third parties in ways that were never contemplated.”
Landlords, especially new ones, might not know all the laws pertaining to inappropriate use of personal information and are just trying to do their due diligence when looking for a good tenant.
“A small measure you can take is ‘say, “Look, I really want to be assured that you’re not going to use this information in any way other than to verify my identity,” she suggests.
The next step might be to ask the landlord for some assurance on how they will store your confidential information. She suggests saying: “I would like some assurance that you’re going to destroy that information and not have it remain in your database or wherever where it can be compromised and accessed by potential third parties.”
When you’re desperate to find a place to live, you’re going to be more inclined to hand over whatever information a landlord asks.
But it's equally important to know your rights. Don’t let a landlord overstep their boundaries, and don’t readily hand out information that is not required.