In the hands of a thief, your Social Security Number is the master key to your identity.
With a Social Security Number (SSN), a thief can unlock everything from credit history and credit line to tax refunds and medical care. In extreme cases, thieves can use it to impersonate others. So, if you suspect your number is lost or stolen, it’s important to report identity theft to Social Security right away.
Part of what makes an SSN so powerful in identity theft is that there’s only one like it. Unlike a compromised credit card, you can’t hop on the phone and get a replacement. No question, the theft of your SSN has serious implications. If you suspect it, report it. So, let’s take a look at how it can happen and how you can report identity theft to Social Security if it does.
Can I change my Social Security number?
Yes. Sort of. The Social Security Administration can assign a new SSN in a limited number of cases. However, per the SSA, “When we assign a different Social Security number, we do not destroy the original number. We cross-refer the new number with the original number to make sure the person receives credit for all earnings under both numbers.”
In other words, your SSN is effectively forever, which means if it’s stolen, you’re still faced with clearing up any of the malicious activity associated with the theft potentially for quite some time. That’s yet another reason why the protection of your SSN deserves particular attention.
How does Social Security identity theft happen?
There are several ways an SSN can end up with a thief. Some involve physical theft, and others can take the digital route. To what extent are SSNs at risk? Notably, there was the Equifax breach of 2017, which exposed some 147 million SSNs. Yet just because an SSN has been potentially exposed does not mean that an identity crime has been committed with it.
So, let’s start with the basics: how do SSNs get stolen or exposed?
- A lost or misplaced wallet is one way, where you actually lose your SSN card or someone steals it. This is one reason to avoid carrying it on your person unless absolutely necessary. Otherwise, keep it stored in a safe and secure location until you need it, like when starting a new job.
- Old-fashioned dumpster diving is another, where someone will rummage through your trash, the trash of a business, or even a public dump in search for personal information, which is why it’s important to shred any documents that have personal information listed.
- People can simply overhear you provide your number when you’re on a call or over the course of an in-person conversation. In our digital age, we may not think of eavesdropping as much of a threat, but it still very much is. That’s why we strongly recommend providing such info in a secure, private location out of earshot.
- SSNs can get stolen from a place of work, where thieves end up with unsecured documents or information. The same could go for your home, which is another reason to secure your physical SSN cards and any information – physical or digital – that contains them.
- Phishing attacks can also lead to SSN theft, whether that’s through an attack aimed at you or at a business that has access to your personal information like SSNs.
- Data leaks, like the Equifax leak mentioned above, are another way. Yet while the Equifax breach involved millions of records, smaller breaches can expose SSNs just as readily, like the breaches that have plagued many healthcare providers and hospitals over the past year.
That’s quite the list. Broadly speaking, the examples above give good reasons for keeping your SSN as private and secure as possible. With that, it’s helpful to know that there are only a handful of situations where your SSN is required for legitimate purposes, which can help you can make decisions about how and when to give it out. The list of required cases is relatively short, such as:
- When applying for credit or a loan.
- Applying for or changing group health care coverage with an insurance provider.
- Transactions that require IRS notification, like working with investment firms, real estate purchases, auto purchases, etc.
- Registering with a business as a full-time or contract employee (for tax reporting purposes).
You’ll notice that places like doctor’s offices and other businesses are not listed here, though they’ll often request an SSN for identification purposes. While there’s no law preventing them from asking you for that information, they may refuse to work with you if you do not provide that info. In such cases, ask what the SSN would be used for and if there is another form of identification that they can use instead. In all, your SSN is uniquely yours, so be extremely cautious in order to minimize its potential exposure to theft.
How to report identity theft to Social Security in three steps
Let’s say you spot something unusual on your credit report or get a notification that someone has filed a tax return on your behalf without your knowledge. These are possible signs that your identity, if not your SSN, is in jeopardy, which means it’s time to act right away using the steps below:
1. Report the theft to local and federal authorities.
File a police report and a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Identity Theft Report. This will help in case someone uses your Social Security number to commit fraud, since it will provide a legal record of the theft. The FTC can also assist by guiding you through the identity theft recovery process as well. Their site really is an excellent resource.
2. Contact the businesses involved.
Get in touch with the fraud department at each of the businesses where you suspect theft has taken place, let them know of your situation, and follow the steps they provide. With your police and FTC reports, you will already have a couple of vital pieces of information that can help you clear your name.
3. Reach the Social Security Administration and the IRS.
Check your Social Security account to see if someone has gotten a job and used your SSN for employment purposes. Reviewing earnings associated with your SSN can uncover fraudulent use. You can also contact the Social Security Fraud Hotline at (800) 269-0271 or reach out to your local SSA office for further, ongoing assistance. Likewise, contact the Internal Revenue Service at (800) 908-4490 to report the theft and help prevent someone from submitting a tax return in your name.
What do I do next? Ongoing steps to take.
As we’ve talked about in some of my other blog posts, identity theft can be a long-term problem where follow-up instances of theft can crop up over time. However, there are a few steps you can take to minimize the damage and ensure it doesn’t happen again. I cover several of those steps in detail in this blog here, yet let’s take a look at a few of the top items as they relate to SSN theft:
Consider placing a fraud alert.
By placing a fraud alert, you can make it harder for thieves to open accounts in your name. Place it with one of the three major credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion, Equifax), and they will notify the other two. During the year-long fraud alert period, it will require businesses to verify your identity before issuing new credit in your name.
Look into an all-out credit freeze.
A full credit freeze is in place until you lift it and will prohibit creditors from pulling your credit report altogether. This can help stop thieves dead in their tracks since approving credit requires pulling a report. However, this applies to legitimate inquires, including any that you make, like opening a new loan or signing up for a credit card. If that’s the case, you’ll need to take extra steps as directed by the particular institution or lender. Unlike the fraud alert, you’ll need to notify each of the three major credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion, Equifax) when you want the freeze lifted.
Monitor your credit reports.
Once every 12 months, you can access a free credit report from Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. (And as of this writing during the pandemic, this can be done for free on a weekly basis, which is great news.) Doing so will allow you to spot any future discrepancies and offer you options for correcting them.
Sign up for an identity protection service.
Using a service to help protect your identity can monitor several types of personally identifiable information and alert you of potentially unauthorized use. Our own Identity Protection Service will do all this and more, like offering guided help to neutralize threats and prevent theft from happening again. You can set it up on your computers and smartphone to stay in the know, address issues immediately, and keep your identity secured.
Your most unique identifier calls for extra care and protection
Of all the forms of identity theft, the theft of a Social Security Number is certainly one of the most potentially painful because it can unlock so many vital aspects of your life. It’s uniquely you, even more than your name alone – at least in the eyes of creditors, banks, insurance companies, criminal records, etc. Your SSN calls for extra protection, and if you have any concerns that it may have been lost or stolen, don’t hesitate to spring into action.