Your Social Security number is the key to funding your retirement…or the key scammers can use to defraud you and steal your money. With it, scammers can commit identity theft, empty all your accounts and run up debts in your name. It’s a passport scammers can use to access your:
- Bank account (to empty it);
- Brokerage accounts (to drain it);
- Credit cards (to charge against them and/or open new accounts).
In addition to your number, all that’s needed to cause meaningful monetary loss is identifying information such as your address, date of birth, plus possible submission of falsified documents such as fake pay stubs (to take out a mortgage in your name and vanish with the cash). None of this information is difficult to obtain.
The SSN: The Financial Passport
Your Social Security number (SSN) is valuable for other reasons. It can be used:
- As the launchpad to create a phony persona to commit fraud (and worse) in your name;
- To create a line of credit;
- To create a faux tax return to grab your refund;
- To file for unemployment benefits;
- By someone ineligible to work in the U.S., wreaking havoc with your own Social Security benefits; and
- To gain access Medicare or Medicaid benefits, likewise creating headaches for you.
How do they do that?
There are many ways someone can learn your Social Security number…and two of the top three ways depend on you.
- Avoid data breaches, which are becoming more and more common. You can make hackers’ jobs a little harder by not putting your SS number on your medical forms you complete at the doctor’s office.
- Do not ever respond to calls from someone alleging to be from the Social Security Administration (SSA) checking about “suspicious” account activity. Do not give the caller some or all your numbers for “verification.”
- Always keep your SS card secure. It should never be carried in your wallet, which could be lost or stolen. Keep it in a safe place at home.
More ways to keep safe
- Never give your number over the phone. If you receive a suspicious call, hang up then make your own verifying call to the SSA. Remember, scammers can fool Caller ID into looking like the Social Security Administration is calling you.
- Check your bank, brokerage and credit card statements. While any large withdrawal that you didn’t make is a flashing red light, don’t dismiss small charges such subscriptions or tiny “test charges.” Often these are how scammers check to see how vigilant you are…before stealing thousands of dollars.
- Notice incoming mail. Thieves sometimes steal from mailboxes to gain your personal information. They can use this info to complete phony financial applications. If you notice that some of your usual financial statements (credit card, bank or brokerage account) are arriving late or not at all, your SSN (or other vital financial information) may have been compromised. Always check!
- Unexpected calls from Credit Agencies. A call concerning an account you didn’t open or don’t have tells you that someone used your SSN to open a new line of credit.
What to do?
If your SSN has been stolen or financial accounts compromised by exposure, here’s what to do:
– File immediate alerts with all three credit agencies:
- Experian – experian.com/fraud
- Equifax – www.equifax.com/CreditReportAssistance
- TransUnion – www.transunion.com/fraud
– Place either a freeze or fraud alert on your credit accounts. There are advantages and drawbacks to each. To decide which to choose, visit: https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/what-know-about-credit-freezes-and-fraud-alerts#difference
– To ensure that it is you who receives your refund, file your taxes promptly.
Bank or Brokerage Accounts, Credit Cards
- Immediately close and replace your account(s).
- Cancel and replace your card(s).
To protect against identity theft, make it a point to check your credit reports annually. Reports are free; all three are available at https://www.annualcreditreport.com/index.action
Want more information (in English or Spanish)?
- Subscribe to Consumer Alerts in Spanish or English to get what you really need to know: the signs of a scam and how to avoid it.
- Follow the FTC on Twitter: @laftc (in Spanish) and @ftc (in English).
Nona Aguilar is an award-winning writer of numerous magazine articles and two books. She has also edited four specialty business newsletter publications. Her work has appeared in Ladies Home Journal, Redbook, Family Circle and Cosmopolitan, and in The Business Owner.