Identity theft continues to be a significant concern in our increasingly digital world. The theft of personal information can lead to severe consequences, but the risks are particularly high when it involves a Social Security number. Unlike other forms of personal information, such as bank account details or credit card numbers, the theft of a Social Security number can have far-reaching and long-lasting effects.
But why is a Social Security number so crucial, and how can its theft be more damaging than other types of identity theft? This nine-digit number is a key that unlocks various aspects of an individual’s identity, from financial records to personal history. In the hands of a criminal, it can be used to apply for loans, commit fraud, and engage in other illegal activities, potentially leaving a trail of financial and personal chaos.
In this article, we examine the critical aspects of Social Security number theft, offering insights into how it happens, the potential repercussions, and the necessary steps to protect yourself from this growing threat.
How Social Security Numbers Are Stolen
If you were born in the United States, you were likely issued a Social Security number at birth. It likely came into play once you landed your first job, at which point you had to provide it to your employer for tax purposes.
The Social Security Administration takes efforts to safeguard your number, but you’re urged to do the same. There are a few ways your number can end up in the wrong hands.
Physical Card Theft
Do you carry your Social Security card in your wallet? The Social Security Administration urges you not to. You can easily lose your wallet, and having your card in there puts you at risk for theft.
But you have to keep that card somewhere. If it’s in your home, and your house is burglarized, the physical card could end up in the wrong hands. If your card is accidentally thrown in the trash, it could also make its way to someone with criminal intentions.
Occasionally, you’re asked to provide your Social Security number. It might be on employment paperwork or medical records. If you apply to rent an apartment or request a bank loan, chances are your Social Security number will be necessary for the credit check. Lastly, there are the personal documents you maintain with the number on it.
If any of that paperwork ends up in the wrong hands, your number could be used for committing fraud. You may not even realize this personally identifiable information has been compromised until it’s too late.
Data Breaches That Expose Sensitive Information
Even if your personal information never makes it to print, an identity thief can still grab it. How? Accounts are hacked every day. In fact, there were 1,802 data breaches in 2022. Through this type of fraud, those nine-digit identifiers are often collected and later sold on the dark web.
If you’ve ever entered your Social Security number into an online form, it could be on a server somewhere, vulnerable to theft. But even if you’ve kept it offline, forms you filled out while applying for government benefits or signing utility service agreements could have been entered into a database, putting your number at risk.
Phishing and Phone Calls
“There are problems with your account. Click here to resolve them.”
Often, this type of message is a scam. The goal is to get you to click and input personal details that identity thieves can then use for financial gain. Your Social Security number is a prime target for such scams.
When it comes through email, it’s known as phishing. But scams also often come through phone calls. Any time someone asks for your Social Security number by phone, think twice before giving it.
What can someone do with your Social Security number?
Identity theft can impact you in various forms. Someone can use the information to drain your online accounts, commit financial fraud in your name, avoid criminal responsibility, and more. Here are some of the ways stolen numbers are typically used.
Obtain Credit Cards or Loans in Your Name
Credit card fraud comes in various forms. Often, a victim has credit card information stolen, with charges suddenly appearing on account statements.
However, there’s a type of credit card fraud that can be even more devastating. With this type, the identity thief applies for a new account in your name. An applicant only needs your Social Security number and your name and mailing address to complete an application and even be approved.
Claim Your Tax Refund
Stolen identity refund fraud is an ongoing issue for the Internal Revenue Service. A scammer can use your Social Security number to file a tax return in your name. Any tax refund is then redirected to that person’s bank account.
During tax season, it’s important to be on alert for tax-related identity theft. Monitor for suspicious activity, and if you receive any communication from the IRS, contact them immediately.
Drain Your Existing Bank Accounts
If someone has enough other personal data from you, a Social Security number could be used to hack into your bank accounts. There’s a good reason for that. Your Social Security digits can be part of two-factor authentication. Someone could also use it to prove they’re you to a bank representative, thereby gaining access to your account.
Steal your Social Security Checks
If you’re eligible for Social Security benefits or Supplemental Security Income, scammers could use your information to divert those benefits to themselves. This type of Social Security theft can be tough to sort out, too, which could leave you without income for a while.
File for Unemployment Benefits
Stolen Social Security numbers have become a big problem for unemployment agencies across the U.S. With personal information so readily available on the dark web, criminals can apply for unemployment benefits in someone else’s name. This goes for other government programs as well.
Open a Phone Account in Your Name
Loans and credit cards aren’t the only new accounts someone can open in your name. Using your Social Security number and other personal information, someone could apply for and land a new phone number.
Receive Medical Care Using Your Benefits
Social Security identifiers are used more often than you may realize in healthcare. You may be asked to provide that information at registration when receiving medical treatment. If you’re on Medicare or Medicaid, your Social ties directly into your benefits. Using those numbers, someone could commit medical identity theft to get treatment.
Set Up Utilities Using Your Identity
The electric, gas, and water companies will often look into your credit history when deciding whether to approve you for services. Someone with bad credit could use stolen Social Security cards or numbers to set up services.
What can you do if someone steals your SSN?
If fraud is being committed using your Social Security data, you’ll need to take immediate action. Here are some steps to take once you’ve determined that your Social Security card has been compromised.
Detect It Quickly
When it comes to fraud, rapid detection can be crucial. Here are some telltale signs that your number is being used by someone who isn’t you.
- Credit score changes: A sudden, unexplained shift in your credit scores could be a sign someone has applied for credit using your information. Pull your credit report and take a look. You’re entitled to one free credit report each year through AnnualCreditReport.com.
- Suspicious activity: Your credit reports aren’t the only way to check for fraud. Make a habit of monitoring your bank statements and contacting your bank or credit card issuer if you see anything strange.
- Notices of unpaid bills: An identity thief may have applied for services or subscriptions in your name. If you don’t recognize the business or service, investigate to make sure you actually authorized the purchase.
- IRS notices: Fraudsters often target taxpayers by posing as the IRS or other government agencies. Messages about tax returns you didn’t file or tax refunds you’ve received erroneously could be connected to known IRS scams.
Protect Your Credit
After detecting any suspicious activity related to your SSN, it’s essential to consider additional protective measures like setting up a fraud alert or credit freeze:
- Fraud alert: By placing a fraud alert on your credit reports, you inform credit bureaus that potential creditors should verify your identity before extending credit. This makes it harder for identity thieves to open new accounts in your name. There are different types of alerts that can last for one year or as long as seven years.
- Credit freeze: A credit freeze restricts access to your credit report, which means potential creditors can’t review it. Without access to your credit history, most creditors won’t issue new credit. Unlike fraud alerts, you must contact each of the three major credit bureaus individually to freeze or unfreeze your credit.
If you’re sure your identity has been compromised, it’s important to report it. First, gather as much documentation as possible to demonstrate that fraud has occurred. Then, reach out using the following channels set up to help with fraud:
- Your financial institution: If identity theft in some way compromised your bank accounts, it’s important to reach out to those account providers and report the issue. Protections can be put on your accounts to prevent further damage.
- Government entities: The Federal Trade Commission and Office of the Inspector General both have tools for reporting identity theft. But you can start at IdentityTheft.gov to get a step-by-step guide for recovering after theft.
- Police: A police report can be crucial in protecting you, particularly if your information might be used to commit crimes and create a criminal record in your name.
Consider a New Social Security Number
In some instances, it might be necessary to get a new SSN. You’ll need your driver’s license to kick off this process. It can complicate things if you’ve set up your employment records and tax filings under the old number, so this is typically a last resort.
Consider Identity Theft Protection
Even if you take measures to prevent identity theft, it can happen again. Identity theft protection can serve as insurance against future incidents. When combined with credit monitoring, this type of protection can offer peace of mind as you provide your information when applying for loans and changing employers.
The importance of safeguarding one’s Social Security number, bank account, and personal information cannot be stressed enough. The potential misuse of an SSN is vast, ranging from criminal identity theft to fraudulent financial activities. With just this number, malicious actors can create significant havoc in one’s personal, financial, and professional life.
It is paramount to remain vigilant, to minimize unnecessary sharing of your SSN, and to monitor accounts and credit reports regularly for any discrepancies. In the digital age, personal data security is a cornerstone of personal safety, and your Social Security number is among the most critical pieces of information to protect.