Identity theft is on the rise, with 1.4 million fraud reports filed in 2021. If your identity is stolen, you could suffer long-term damage to your credit score in addition to losing substantial funds.
How does it all start? With your personal information being stolen. It could be a bank account, username and password, or credit card number. But while all of those are bad, they often aren’t as devastating as a stolen Social Security number. Using those nine numbers, a criminal can apply for loans, commit fraud, and much more.
Here are some things you need to know about having your Social Security number stolen.
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 a variety of 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, someone 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 communications 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 are able to 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 score 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 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. Messages about tax returns you didn’t file or tax refunds you’ve received erroneously could be connected to known IRS scams.
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 measures to monitor your credit report and bank account, this type of protection can offer peace of mind as you provide your information when applying for loans and changing employers.
It’s important to keep your personal information safe, but criminal identity theft can happen to anyone. As long as you protect your number and other personal information from Social Security theft, you can reduce your risk of falling victim to scams.