A bank robbery typically conjures up images of bad guys wearing masks, waving a pistol and hauling sacks stashed with oodles of greenbacks. But in this day and age, bandits have a much less labor-intensive way of doing the deed: stealing Social Security numbers.
Case in point: Daniel White, a New Jersey man who, over the course of 16 months, stole more than half a million dollars from hundreds of bank accounts using stolen Social Security numbers until his January 2019 arrest, NJ.com reported.
The rise of Social Security number theft
Heists like his don’t show any sign of ending. U.S. consumers lost $1.7 billion to identity theft in 2018, nearly double the cash victims lost in 2016, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
Social Security numbers were created in 1936 to track people’s earnings toward Social Security benefits. Now, these nine-digit numbers have become key data used to fill out a range of everyday forms, whether at the doctor’s office, bank, school, and more. As a result, Social Security numbers open up a range of fraud and identity theft opportunities.
What happens if someone steals your Social Security number?
Once your Social Security number is stolen, it can be used to gather additional personal information about you and used for the fraudster’s personal gain, whether it’s to apply for a job, attain government benefits or steal your hard-earned money. The actual consequences can be as varied as the nature of the information that’s out there.
Four things identity thieves can do with your Social Security number
Here are four things thieves might do when they get a hold of your Social Security number:
Drain your finances
This is what often comes to mind when your Social Security number is stolen. The thief can use your identity to apply for a credit card, create a new bank account, steal money from your current account or even take out a loan. When the scammer defaults on payments—and they certainly will—the creditors or law enforcement officers could come after you. Often, that’s when victims typically become aware of the crime.
Steal government funds
Stolen Social Security numbers enable scammers to apply for Medicare or Medicaid. They can pretend to be you and nab your tax refund or your Social Security benefits. Once you submit for your refund or benefits, you’ll be told that it has already been claimed.
Pin a crime on you
It’s the stuff of nightmares: The scammer commits a crime, whether it’s a speeding ticket or much, much worse. With your personal info in his possession, not to mention fake ID, you end up with a warrant for an arrest in your name. Even when police realize it’s foul play, the incident can still lead to messy situations down the road, when you try to apply for a job or anything else that requires a background check.
Compromise your medical coverage
When a thief uses your stolen Social Security number to seek medical coverage or obtain prescription drugs, this can again create a situation you’re only aware of once the debt collectors start calling. Worse, when you actually need medical care or a particular drug, your insurance may tell you that you’ve already maxed out of coverage.
How do I know if my Social Security number is stolen?
Oftentimes, you don’t. But if your account was involved in a large data breach or if you lost your card, then you need to pay attention to possible signs:
A bad credit report
One scheme on the rise is new-account fraud, where the scammer opens a new account, like a rewards credit card, in your name and skips out on paying the bill. By checking your credit report regularly, you’ll be able to spot possible theft.
Inexplicable charges on various accounts
Even if you haven’t checked your credit report, you may know something’s fishy just by scrutinizing your bills, including those for your credit card and mobile phone. When Social Security numbers get stolen, thieves can charge items and services on your account and leave you with the bill. According to the most recent Javelin Strategy & Research report, mobile phone account takeovers have shot up from 380,000 in 2017 to 679,000 in 2018.
Surprise activities in Social Security account
If you haven’t already, you should create one (get it here) and check it for any inconsistencies in earnings. About 99% of Social Security benefits are paid with direct deposit (which is very secure), said Tracy Lynge, communications director at the Social Security Administration, Office of the Inspector General. But the agency has noticed a new kind of scam.
“If someone has your personally identifiable information, he or she can potentially create a ‘my Social Security’ account and redirect your benefits to a different bank account,” she said. That’s why the agency now sends a letter via snail mail to both old and new addresses of people who create an account and change the address or bank for deposit. If you receive one—and your address is the same—you’ll know that something is up.
Warnings from creditors
By keeping an eye on the above, you’ll (hopefully) greatly minimize your chances of being chased by creditors. But if thieves get a hold of your Social Security number and unlock a range of personal information, they can essentially insinuate themselves into just about everything that touches your everyday life, from leasing a car, to getting medical care, to opening an electric utility account. And when these expenses don’t get paid, you’ll be the one on the hook.
Someone stole my Social Security number. What now?
A Social Security number stolen is like an insidious disease. The bad news creeps up when you don’t suspect it, and by then, the damage is already done. Worse, you never know when its effects might resurface. For instance, you lose out on a job offer because your name is associated with an arrest, or a loan application falls through because of a bad credit score. Unfortunately, changing your number won’t make the problem go away. In fact, it may make things more confusing, said Joseph Steinberg, a New York City-based cyber-security expert. “It’s probably not worth the aggravation,” he said, because so many accounts are tied to that number. Instead, do the following.
Five steps to take if your Social Security number is stolen
Contact the businesses and agencies involved
Whether it’s your credit card, an electrical company or your insurance carrier, let the fraud department know as soon as possible about questionable charges or statements.
Report the loss to the Federal Trade Commission
Do this by logging on to IdentityTheft.gov. It will provide a step-by-step reporting and recovery plan. You can also call 1-877-IDTHEFT.
File a police report
This way, if your name is tied to any wrongdoing, there’s a record tied to the incident, which will help bolster your case.
Alert one of the major credit bureaus
These include Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Contact one, and the other two will also know (you’ll find contact information on the FTC site here). Explain that there has been fraudulent activity and request a credit freeze. This will help stem any additional damage by preventing thieves from opening a new credit card account or applying for a loan. While you’re at it, check your credit report (you can do this here). If a company’s security lapse caused your Social Security number to be exposed, see if the company offers free credit monitoring, and if so, use it.
File your taxes early
This will help prevent the thief from beating you to the punch—i.e., making a submission with your identity and taking your tax refund. However, if this has already happened—for example, you received a fraud alert from the IRS or your online tax software says your return has already been filed—then contact the IRS as soon as possible. The IRS site provides step-by-step instructions from a tax perspective as to what to do if your Social Security number is stolen, as well as relevant forms.
How to avoid losing your Social Security number
Social Security numbers rarely get stolen from home. “Most are stolen in bulk,” explains Steinberg, “like stealing employee records.” Or as part of a large corporate breach as was the case with Capital One in July. Unfortunately, that’s out of your control. But there’s still plenty you can do to keep your personal information safe.
Keep your Social Security card at home, not in your wallet
Put it in a safe place. The less you travel with it, the less chance you’ll have it stolen. Don’t write the number down anywhere, and use the same caution with any other documentation with your Social Security number on it.
Don’t give out your Social Security number if you don’t have to
Medical forms and school forms, for instance, should not require Social Security numbers. If someone demands it, ask how it will be used and how it will be stored. See if you can give an alternative form of ID instead, such as your passport or driver’s license. If you are a contractor who must provide a Social Security number to numerous firms, ask your accountant whether it’s worth creating an LLC (limited liability company). This will then allow you to apply for a federal tax ID number, which can be used in place of a Social Security number, Basically, only institutions that need to submit to the IRS—such as the company you’re employed at, the unemployment office or banks—actually need your Social Security number. After all, said Steinberg, “if you give your number to 20 parties, your chances of having it stolen is that much bigger.”
Recognize scam calls or emails
If someone calls and says they’re from the Social Security Administration or some other official agency, and asks for your Social Security number, hang up. It’s likely a Social Security scam call. Staff people from the administration in particular would never ask for you to provide it—they have it already. Government impostor scam calls, including the Social Security sort, are among the most prevalent of the 535,417 impostor scam reports to the Federal Trade Commission in 2018.
Shred your junk mail
Thieves actually do rummage through trash. If they find personal information, your identity could be compromised.
Don’t share your Social Security number via email or text
These can be intercepted and read. Your best bet is to provide the information in person or over the phone. And of course, never share your number with an unfamiliar site.