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With identity theft, the truth can seem stranger than fiction. Example: A man answered his door to find the police there to arrest him on multiple counts for crimes he did not commit. After much hassle and confusion, he learned that the police showed up because his stolen social security number had been used by a real criminal – who was on bail but disappeared and missed a court date.
This type of criminal identity theft does occur, although it is extreme. Fraudsters who secure your SSN are more likely to use this nine-digit ID to take out a loan or open a credit card account in your name.
Anyway, it is very difficult to control your social security number in nature.
Social security numbers are fraudulent gold
Social Security numbers are often used to commit identity theft, which defrauded 51,600 victims out of $278 million in 2021, according to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.
For too many of us, our SSNs are already in the hands of miscreants, along with our other intimate details. For the price of a cup of coffee and a bagel — personal record sets cost as little as $5 each on the dark web — a scammer can use your identity for personal gain.
The most common scams involving social security numbers include:
- Establish credit and take out a fraudulent loan
- Getting a mortgage under false pretenses
- Open a fake bank account
- Inappropriate access to health care or other benefits
- Filing taxes to collect bogus refunds
- Working illegally and/or committing immigration fraud
- Avoid law enforcement
Fraudsters (or irresponsible family members) can build and destroy your credit with the right information. Sometimes this means performing synthetic identity fraud using your SSN with a forged name and address.
8 steps you can take to prevent fraud
I’ve previously written about how to reduce your risk of identity theft using the first-hand information I learned about as a principal investigator for Threat Research at Agari by HelpSystems.
It is essential to protect your SSN. The Social Security Administration will rarely give you a new number, even if yours has been compromised.
Your goal in protecting your SSN is to limit its exposure as much as possible while increasing your awareness of how it is being used. Here are a few tips :
- Create an account on the Social Security website. Only one account can exist per SSN, so make sure you are the one creating and controlling the account for your number. You can use it to monitor the accuracy of income and benefit distributions.
- Also open accounts for your children’s social security numbers. Fraud involving minors can go years undetected because children do not apply for credit until they reach adulthood. Keep an eye on your children’s social security numbers because you certainly don’t want your son or daughter applying for their first credit card only to find out that they defaulted on mortgage obligations fraudulently taken out in their name.
- Use a credit monitoring service. If your social security number is hacked, you’ll likely see suspicious activity on your credit reports. Use a credit monitoring service like canary in your financial coalmine to keep tabs on credit inquiries from the three major credit bureaus, Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. Monitoring will not affect your credit score.
- Never carry your social security card in your wallet. You probably have your number memorized and really shouldn’t need to present the paper version often. If your wallet is lost or stolen, you will be in for a world of pain.
- Ask people asking for your SSN if it’s really necessary. We are asked for personal information all the time, including our social security numbers. You might be surprised to find that this isn’t always necessary. For example, medical offices may not need your SSN if they have your insurance ID. If a potential employer wants your number, find out why. A background check may be the only valid reason.
- Avoid giving your number on forms. Try submitting online forms without filling in the SSN field, to see if it is required.
- Protect your documents. If you need to keep documents such as tax returns on your computer or in your cloud account, be sure to encrypt them and use password protection. If sensitive documents are printed, keep them in a safe.
- Freeze your credit reports. Consider freezing or locking your credit reports to preserve your credit profile. You can also search for credit cards that do not require an SSN to apply.
What to do if you suspect fraud
If you believe your Social Security number has been used fraudulently, call the Federal Trade Commission at 877-438-4338 or file a report online with the agency. You can also contact the Office of the Social Security Inspector General’s Anti-Fraud Hotline at 800-269-0271, or submit a report to that office online.
The Social Security Administration also offers the option of blocking electronic access to your number. This could be a good option if you need to lock your account following an incident of fraud. Call 800-772-1213 to request a block.
You can still protect yourself from identity fraud by having such bad credit that no one wants to steal your identity, but it’s probably not in your best financial interest. Staying vigilant and implementing these protections is the way to go.