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How to Stop Identity Thieves From Getting Your Social Security Number
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Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in America, according to the Social Security Administration. And for identity thieves, your Social Security number (SSN) may as well be the Holy Grail. This piece of personal data provides a huge amount of access to your finances. That’s why you need to do whatever you can to protect it.
What cyber thieves can do with your Social Security number
Here’s what identity thieves can do with your SSN:
- Empty your bank accounts
- Open new accounts, like credit cards or loans, in your name
- Rack up debt in your name
- Steal your tax refund
- Get a job using your information (which would affect your taxes the following year)
If someone with bad intentions gets their hands on your Social Security number, the worst-case scenario is pretty grim: mountains of debt, ruined credit and the swift disappearance of your hard-earned money. But the damage can be more than financial. If someone commits a crime in your name using your Social Security number — and there’s no proof that it wasn’t you — you could be arrested for that crime. That kind of trouble is often far more difficult to remedy than financial damage, warns Joseph Steinberg, cybersecurity advisor and CEO of SecureMySocial.
The good news is, a lot of identity theft is opportunistic, said Steinberg. So you can greatly reduce your risk by taking some basic steps to protect your information. Steinberg compares it to car theft: If would-be thieves spot a steering-wheel lock or other basic security device in your car, they’ll most likely move along to the next, easier target.
8 steps to prevent identity theft
Here are eight concrete steps you can take to help protect yourself from identity theft:
- Shred unneeded sensitive documents.
- Securely store all documents that contain personal information.
- Put a lock on your phone.
- Use different, complex passwords for each online account.
- Don’t unnecessarily provide personal information.
- Use security questions with answers that aren’t easily searchable or easy to guess.
- Take advantage of credit monitoring and identity monitoring.
- Consider a pre-emptive credit freeze.
“It’s about balancing practicality with security,” said Steinberg. “There are many conveniences out there that involve giving out your personal information. But you don’t always need to give it out.”
Where to get help if an ID thief uses your Social Security number
If you are a victim of identity theft, the burden of proof falls on you. But there are options to get you on the path to recovery. The FTC, for example, has a website dedicated to helping victims of identity theft. You can use that site to report the crime and get started on a recovery plan. It’s also a good idea to file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, which would alert local authorities. Steinberg suggested keeping a copy of the police report on you to help prevent accidental arrest in the event that the thief committed other crimes using your name (though, in that case, you may also have to hire a criminal defense lawyer).
You should also contact the IRS to prevent or flag tax-related identity theft, as well as the companies where you know fraud occurred. Some credit card companies will even create a trigger so that the police are contacted the next time the credit card is used, according to Steinberg. Changing account passwords, or even closing accounts, can also aid in damage control.
Other useful tools and steps include:
Fraud alerts. You have the right to ask the credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — to set up a fraud alert, which can help you pinpoint any additional actions taken by the person who took your identity. Once the alert is set up, no one can open a new account in your name without taking extra steps to verify their identity. For example, if you provide a phone number, potential lenders must make a reasonable effort to call you for verification. The alert, which lasts for one year, also entitles you to a free copy of your credit report from each bureau.
ID theft and credit monitoring. Although these tools are meant to help prevent identity theft, they can also prove useful after you’ve had your identity stolen. An ID theft or credit-monitoring service will alert you to any changes to your accounts or information. This could help if someone tried to change your address or apply for a loan.
Credit freeze. If you aren’t planning on opening any new credit accounts in the near future, a credit freeze could be a good option. A freeze puts a full stop on all new accounts, thereby protecting you from additional financial harm. However, this would not prevent an identity thief from accessing your existing accounts.
Credit lock. Similar to a credit freeze, a credit lock prevents anyone from opening new accounts in your name, except you can easily turn it on and off at will. To enroll, you need to sign up with at least one of the three credit bureaus.
Active duty alerts. Members of the military can access a 12-month active duty alert, which, similar to a fraud alert, requires lenders to make a reasonable effort to verify the identity of anyone making credit-related requests in your name. It also removes your name from the credit bureaus’ pre-screening marketing lists for credit and insurance offers for the next two years.
Get a new Social Security number. If, after everything, you still can’t get the identity thief to stop using your information, you can request that the Social Security Administration issue you a new number. However, it’s important to keep in mind that this may not solve all of your identity-theft related problems, since credit bureaus may still have your old information on file. Victims who don’t also change their name and address will likely find less relief.
Prevention is always the best policy. And if someone uses your Social Security number to steal your identity, the complications can add up quickly. That’s why it’s vital to take the time to protect your personal information, especially your Social Security number. It’s a little bit of effort that can make a big difference down the line.