Social Security identity theft can negatively impact your credit, result in a mountain of debt, and take years to completely resolve. Learn how to protect yourself.
If you’re like most people, you probably don’t think about your Social Security number too often—it’s just that nine-digit string of numbers you have to use sometimes when applying for a job or filing taxes. However, while you’re not thinking about your SSN all the time, there’s a group of people that have dedicated their lives to it: identity thieves.To hackers, scam artists, and thieves, Social Security numbers (SSN) are the Holy Grail of identity theft. Social Security numbers are unique to each person, and they are usually the hardest to find (as things like addresses and phone numbers can sometimes be easily found online), so when people with less-than-honorable intentions get their hands on an SSN, it can be a matter of just minutes before they commit Social Security identity theft.
What is Social Security identity theft?
Social Security identity theft is when someone steals your Social Security number and uses it to obtain other personal information about you. Once they have more personal information—like your full name, address, phone number, and birth date—they are able to use your identity to commit all types of crimes.
Identity thieves will commonly use your SSN to apply for new credit cards, open new bank accounts, apply for home and car loans, steal your tax refund, and even claim Social Security benefits that you have rightfully earned. Fast-moving identity thieves create a lot of damage in a short amount of time, long before you even realize your personal information was compromised. Once you discover they have completely ruined your credit and left you with a pile of debt to resolve, they are usually long gone.
How honest people become victims of Social Security identity theft
You were likely taught that your Social Security number is completely confidential and that you shouldn’t share it with anyone any more than necessary. So how do identity thieves get their hands on this private information?
According to the U.S. Social Security Administration, there are several different ways identity thieves steal Social Security numbers:
- Snooping in your mailbox and stealing things like credit card statements, pre-approved credit offers, new checks, and tax information.
- Data breaches at companies, which is when hackers are able to break into an organization’s computer system and steal sensitive data. This can happen to any type of organization or business—including universities, hospitals, and major retailers—so any outside companies that have your Social Security number for any reason (including your employer) could have their system compromised.
- Going through the trash, including your personal trash, your employer’s trash, and public trash dumps.
- Engaging in phone or email scams in which they pretend to be an authorized person or company who needs your personal information. IRS scams are common, but they may even pretend to be a family member or your landlord.
- Buying personal information from individuals who may have access to it, like a store employee after you fill out a credit application.
- Going through your purse or wallet or stealing them completely. It can be harder to catch identity thieves who copy down information in purses or wallets, but don’t steal them, because many times the victim has no idea someone was rummaging through their belongings.
Sometimes, people have their Social Security numbers stolen in their own homes by people that they trust. Those trusted individuals could be friends, family members, or contractors they allow in their houses, like the weekly cleaning lady.
How you can protect yourself from Social Security identity theft
Social Security identity theft can be frustrating because certain situations—like data breaches—are hard for you to avoid. After all, if your employer or a hospital needs your Social Security number, you’re going to give it to them. It’s not your fault if their systems are compromised by hackers.
There is, however, a certain mindset you can adopt when it comes to your Social Security number: you need to guard it with your life. It is the key that can unlock all sorts of illegal, devious doors for identity thieves, and you should never give it away without good reason.
First and foremost, do not carry your Social Security card in your wallet. This is a huge mistake people make. Put the card in a lockbox in your house, and only take it out when you need it. Remember, SSNs are even stolen in your home by people that you know, so you can’t leave that type of information just lying around.
Invest in a shredder and immediately shred anything with your personal information on it that you don’t need (that includes junk mail and pre-approved credit card offers).
Never give your Social Security number to someone who calls or emails you. Also, don’t just give someone your Social Security number because they ask for it. Even if the business is reputable (like a doctor’s office), ask them why they need the number and how it will be used and stored in their system. If they don’t have a good reason, you don’t need to give it to them.
Are you fully protected from identity theft? About 17.6 million people were victims of identity theft in 2014 (2015 numbers yet to be released), so chances are, if you haven’t been affected yet, you will be at least once in your lifetime. Sometimes your homeowners insurance policy will cover restoration costs associated with identity theft. Contact your Pekin Insurance agent to learn more and to see if your current insurance has you covered.
Have you ever been the victim of identity theft? Tell us about it in the comments section below!