While house hunting in Toronto’s nightmare rental market, a landlord said he needed my passport and my social insurance number (SIN) in order to run a background check as part of my 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 to further my application.
To which the landlord replied, “Unfortunately I'm sorry to say that I have decided to move forward with another more qualified applicant.”
Can a landlord ask you to provide your SIN?
I can’t prove that not providing my SIN hurt the chances of my application being approved, but I think it’s telling that the landlord didn’t address my privacy concerns or potentially didn’t know providing a SIN is not a legal requirement in this case.
In fact, on The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s (OPC) website, it says “organizations that request SIN outside of a legal requirement must clearly mark it as optional” — something the landlord didn’t do on his application.
To clarify, a landlord can ask for your SIN when completing an application to rent a property or negotiating a lease with a landlord, according to the Government of Canada's website. But you aren't required to provide it.
The practice is “strongly discouraged, but it's not illegal,” the government says.
It goes on to advise individuals to ask “why it is being requested, how it will be used and with whom it will be shared.”
It’s important to note 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,” said 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.”
In order to run a credit check, OPC says the landlord would need 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.”
In other words, 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
Recovering from identity theft can take years and we’ve reported how getting a new SIN can be a real pain.
“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,” said Ann Cavoukian, executive director of the Global Privacy & Security by Design Centre, in an interview.
There are serious financial repercussions from identity theft.
"From filing police reports to re-establishing credit, it can take some time for victims to get finances back in order," an Equifax report titled A Lasting Impact: The Emotional Toll of Identity Theft explains.
As Ontario’s former privacy commissioner for 17 years, Cavoukian saw a number of identity theft victims and urges people to be very careful who they provide personal information.
“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 said.
“[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 the over-collection and 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,” Cavoukian suggested.
“After you've done that, I would like some assurance that you're going to destroy that information and not having to remain in your database or wherever where can be compromised and access by potentially 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 know your rights. Don’t let a landlord overstep their boundaries and don’t readily hand out the information you’re not required to.