How to Protect Yourself from Social Security Number Identity Theft
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- A stolen Social Security number is one of the leading causes of identity theft and can threaten your financial health.
- It’s important to keep your Social Security number to yourself whenever possible and avoid carrying your physical card with you.
- Although there’s no way to totally prevent identity theft if your Social Security number is stolen, certain strategies can help lessen your risk.
Imagine you open your mail to find a credit card bill with thousands of dollars of mysterious charges. Or you get a call from a lender threatening repossession of a luxury car that you don’t own. As alarming as these scenarios may seem, they are signs of a surprisingly common crime — identity theft.
A stolen Social Security number (SSN) is one of the leading causes of identity theft and can be a real threat to your financial health. Avoid this scam’s frustrating legal and financial consequences and learn how to better protect your personal information from Social Security number identity theft.
Warning signs of Social Security number identity theft
Social Security number identity theft occurs when someone gains unauthorized access to your SSN. For example, a scammer might steal your wallet, purse or mail, rummage through your trash or pose as an employer, government agency or someone else who legitimately needs your personal information. Being able to spot signs of potential Social Security number identity theft is the first step toward keeping your information safe.
These are some of the most common ways that your SSN might be compromised and the warning signs to look out for.
Social Security card loss or theft. If your Social Security card is nowhere to be found, or if your purse, wallet or other personal belongings have been stolen, you may be vulnerable to identity theft. If you know your SSN by heart, it may not be necessary to get a new card, but you can easily order a free replacement from the Social Security Administration.
Following a loss or theft, you should keep a close eye on your credit reports, as these can be your first indication of identity theft. The three nationwide consumer reporting agencies - Equifax®, TransUnion® and Experian® - offer fraud alerts and security freezes, which can all be activated to help better protect against fraudulent credit or loan applications.
You can create a myEquifax account to place a fraud alert and security freeze on your Equifax credit report.
Phishing and smishing. Phishing scams attempt to deceive you into providing personal information through deceptive emails, while smishing scams do the same with deceptive text messages.
Scammers may attempt to trick you into giving up your SSN or following a hyperlink that downloads malware onto your device. Malware is harmful software that can monitor your keystrokes, redirect you to dangerous websites and create pop-ups, stealing identifying information about you in the process.
It’s easy to believe you’d never fall for these scams. However, phishing and smishing campaigns can be very sophisticated, appear legitimate and often involve something called spoofing. Spoofing is when an attacker creates a replica of the official website, email address or phone number of a trusted source, such as a bank, government agency or retail company. Sometimes the fraudulent website or email address will differ from the original by a single character.
If you find yourself with an influx of emails or texts from unknown senders, it could be a sign you are being targeted for your personal information.
Phone and texting scams. You may also receive robocalls or spam texts from identity thieves. Many use spoofing to imitate local area codes, government agencies, retail companies, banks or other trusted entities. Agencies like the IRS generally won’t make unsolicited calls asking for personal information like your SSN.
6 ways to protect yourself from Social Security number identity theft
Although there’s no way to totally prevent identity theft if your Social Security number is stolen, the following strategies can help lessen your risk:
- Safeguard your SSN. Don’t carry your Social Security card with you. Instead, memorize your SSN and keep it secure at home. Never repeat your SSN aloud in public or around anyone you don’t trust, and always ask why and how it will be used before giving it out.
- Shred paperwork with your SSN. Shred any documents that include your SSN or other personally identifiable information before you dispose of them. Pay special attention to paystubs, bank statements and loan documents, as well as W-2s and other IRS forms, as these may display your full SSN.
- Watch out for phishing, smishing and spoofing. If you receive unsolicited communication, be sure to confirm that the related email addresses, websites and phone numbers are legitimate before providing any information or clicking a link. Messages from phishers may include notifications about problems with an account, warnings about suspicious activity or claims that you’re eligible for a government refund.
Read these messages carefully — they will likely be vague and may include grammatical or spelling errors. Be especially skeptical of anyone claiming to represent a government agency such as the IRS.
- Use strong passwords for your electronic devices. Be sure to use strong, complex passwords for your accounts and enable security measures like two-factor authentication when possible. You might also consider security software to help prevent malware from being installed on your device by phishing schemes, as well as other online threats.
- Check your existing accounts. Unexplained activity on accounts in your name may be a sign your Social Security number is at risk. Be on the lookout for mysterious charges on your credit cards or strange withdrawals from your checking or savings account.
- Consider purchasing identity protection. Identity protection services can be a useful addition to your financial toolbox: They may often track where your SSN or certain other personal data appear online. For example, you may be notified if your personal information is found on the dark web, or if someone using your personal information applies for a loan. Many services even monitor your credit reports to flag certain changes. If you spot identity theft from these alerts, the services may also offer identity theft restoration services to work on your behalf to help you recover from identity theft.
If you believe you may be a victim of Social Security number identity theft, you can file a police report or a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) identity theft report. This way, if someone uses your SSN to commit fraud, you will have a legal record of the suspected theft. You can get more information from the FTC’s toll-free identity theft hotline at 877-IDTHEFT (877-438-4338) or visit their website at www.ftc.gov/idtheft. If you suspect someone of committing fraud, waste or abuse, you can contact the Office of the Inspector General’s fraud hotline at 800-269-0271 or submit a report online at www.oig.ssa.gov.