You already know it’s important to keep a tight hold of your personal data. And amid an ongoing slew of customer information breaches, you can’t take data privacy for granted.
In a case from December 2021, a hacker group accessed the personal details of over three million users on FlexBooker. They then sold the data on hacker forums, granting access to countless online criminals who presumably used it for nefarious purposes or sold it on to others with similar motives.
Of all your personal data, your social security number (SSN) is probably the most valuable to a thief. It grants access to many different services and is the key to unlocking further identifying information about you.
Here, we’ll lay out some scenarios of what a fraudster could do if they got ahold of your SSN. We’ll also talk about some simple ways you can prevent that from happening.
What Is A Social Security Number And What Is It For?
Your SSN is a unique nine-digit identifier that the government allocates at birth to all individuals in the United States. If you had an undocumented birth, you may have to apply for an SSN as an adult. You need this number for many of life’s essential, everyday activities, such as:
- Opening bank accounts
- Applying for jobs
- Getting a passport
- Collecting social security benefits
- Accessing government services
Because the number is unique to each individual, the government can’t simply assign you another if yours is stolen. Though there are certain exceptions to this (for example, if you need to change your identity for safety reasons), the process is long and complicated.
How Can Your Social Security Number Be Stolen?
There are multiple ways a criminal can get ahold of an SSN, such as:
- Going through trash to find it on documents, either at your home or workplace
- Stealing your wallet or mail
- Taking the data from an unsecured website you’ve previously given it to
- Buying personal information from other employees at your place of work
- Making a fake call to you pretending to be someone who needs the number, such as an employer, landlord, or government official
- Stealing it from records at a hospital or nursing home
- Accessing public death lists
Ways Criminals Use a Stolen SSN
If someone with bad intentions obtains your SSN, they can cause a lot of havoc. They could build up debt in your name or even land you in trouble with the law.
If they steal your SSN in conjunction with other information, such as your date of birth, there’s even more a criminal can achieve. They could use that data to dig up more identifying information, such as your credit history or vehicle ownership. Every piece of personal data they get makes it easier to open accounts and apply for loans as if they were you.
It’s even possible to steal someone’s identity using only the last four digits of their SSN. Expert criminals sometimes use complex computer algorithms to guess the rest of the number.
Next, we’ll go into more detail about what someone can do with your SSN and the potential repercussions for you. We’ll also offer some tips on how to deal with each situation.
With your SSN, a criminal can:
Open new accounts: Getting access to free credit is a common motive for stealing an SSN. A thief could open a new account or take out a loan or credit card. They could also use your details to open utility accounts for water, gas, electricity, or cable services.
You may not even know someone is using your number until you’re turned down for a loan. Or you might start getting calls from unknown creditors demanding payment for items or services you never bought.
As the thief obviously won’t pay back the credit, the defaulted payments will be traced to you. These then stay on your credit report unless challenged and cleared, which can take a lot of time and effort. Until you and the credit company sort out the situation, you’ll be stuck with a lower credit score. This can seriously impact your ability to get a mortgage, take out loans, or open new accounts.
What to do if this happens to you: If you suspect someone has opened bank or utility accounts in your name, you should immediately contact the credit reporting bureaus. Make sure you call all three of the major ones—Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion—and ask them to look into it.
Set up phone contracts: New phone contracts can be created with just an SSN, name, and address. With the first account opened, many more phones can be ordered and charged to your bill.
What to do if this happens to you: As this is such a common method of fraud, many phone companies have their own fraud departments and procedures. Report to them first if you think someone has set up a phone account in your name.
Go for medical treatment: A fraudster might even use your SSN to access medical treatment. As well as being potentially very expensive, this can also be dangerous as the hospital will store the thief’s medical details on your record. That could lead to life-threatening mistakes in the future, such as medics giving you the wrong blood type during emergency treatment.
What to do if this happens to you: If you’re suspicious, check your medical report for any unknown entries (it’s a good idea to do this on a regular basis anyway). Many medical providers give you online access to these documents—if yours doesn’t, ask how you can see it.
Claim government funds: Stolen Identity Refund Fraud (SIRF) is when a criminal fakes a tax return to claim a refund. Typically, they’ll submit a tax return early in the year before legitimate taxpayers have had a chance to file theirs. A fraudster could also use your SSN to claim benefits or register as unemployed. This will deplete the amount of money you could access if you need to.
What to do if this happens to you: Make sure you check your social security record regularly. If you see anything unusual, call the Social Security Fraud Hotline at 800-269-0271. You can also block your SSN, stopping anyone else from using it to access services online.
Give a false identity when arrested: If the person with your SSN is arrested and gives law enforcement your identity, this could go down on your (now-criminal!) record. At worst, they could be let out on bail and never show up for court—leaving you with a very sticky legal situation to unravel.
What to do if this happens to you
As well as notifying the three major credit companies, you should report a case of identity theft to the police immediately. That way, they’ll have it on file if the criminal is picked up for a different offense.
How Can You Protect Your SSN and Credit Score?
The best way to avoid the above scenarios is to keep your number from falling into the wrong hands in the first place. You can never be too careful, especially when speaking to companies on the phone—literally anyone could be on the other end.
Here are some pro tips for keeping your personal details private:
Call back: If a government agency such as the Social Security Administration (SSA) calls you, always ask for the person’s name and extension first. If they’re genuine, they won’t mind you hanging up and calling them back in a moment. Check the main number of the SSA and add the extension yourself. If the same person answers, you can trust that it’s an authentic call.
Check service providers’ security measures: Many companies will ask for your SSN as a matter of course, but you should check if they really need it. If they say they do, ask what policies and procedures are in place to prevent breaches of personal information. If they can’t give a satisfactory answer, use a different company.
Give out a different but legitimate identifying number: In many cases, you can use a driver’s license or another account number in place of your SSN. If this is an option, take it.
Don’t carry your SSN on you: Don’t keep your SSN in your wallet in case it gets stolen. If you want a record with you at all times, keep it on your phone electronically in a password-protected file. There are many password and encrypted note storage apps available at a low cost.
Monitor your accounts: Keep a close eye on all your financial accounts so you can report any unfamiliar charges quickly. Online banking can make it easier to check statements regularly.
Register your SSN: You can create an online account with the Social Security Administration (SSA) that will let you see what your number’s being used for.
Place a fraud alert on your credit files: This is an alert that asks creditors to take extra steps to verify your identity if they receive an application for credit from you. It’ll give you extra security measures to go through but will make it harder for anyone else to take out credit in your name. An initial fraud alert lasts for one year.
Sign Up for Professional Identity Theft Protection
Keeping your SSN safe takes time and effort, but for a small monthly fee, you can purchase identity theft protection services that will monitor threats for you.
The best of these companies track all activities related to your identity, including your SSN and changes to your credit score. They even look in places you wouldn’t think to or don’t know how to access (for example, the dark web).
Although these services can’t always prevent a determined criminal from stealing your SSN, they can alert you as soon as that criminal tries to use it. They and you can then take immediate steps to minimize the damage, for example, by freezing certain accounts.
These firms typically also provide insurance to cover expenses and an identity recovery specialist to help you if your identity is stolen. Identity theft protection services we recommend include IdentityGuard, LifeLock, and ReliaShield.
Who To Contact If Your SSN Gets Stolen
If you fall victim to this kind of theft, there are several agencies you should report it to before you go any further:
The Social Security Administration (SSA)
Although the SSA can’t help you resolve the fraud, they can go over your records with you to check that they’re correct. Go to https://secure.ssa.gov/emailus/ to fill out a contact form or call 1-800-772-1213; TTY 1-800-325-0778. It’s worth noting that sometimes more than one person can be using the same SSN due to an administrative error.
This is a website managed by the Federal Trade Commission. It’ll guide you through the process of identifying the type of fraud you’ve experienced and reporting it. They’ll also help you develop a recovery plan so that you know what to do next. Go to https://www.identitytheft.gov/#/ or call 1-877-IDTHEFT (1-877-438-4338); TTY 1-866-653-4261.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
As mentioned above, if someone else has your SSN, they could use it to make a fake claim for a tax refund. If you let the IRS know that your number may have been stolen, they can double-check any claims if/when they come in. Go to www.irs.gov/uac/Identity-Protection or call 1-800-908-4490.
The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3)
The IC3 is a joint project between the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National White Collar Crime Center, and the Bureau of Justice Assistance. They work together to share details about cybercrime with local law enforcement agencies. You can file your complaint online at: https://complaint.ic3.gov/default.aspx