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Your Social Security number is one of the most important identifiers you have for financial and legal purposes. Most people born in the United States are issued one at birth, but it’s not usually something you use yourself until you’ve reached adulthood. But what happens if someone gets your Social Security number? Keep reading to find out how your SSN can be stolen and what criminals can do with it once they have it.
What is a Social Security number for?
Your Social Security is a nine-digit number that’s a unique identifier for you for government purposes. It’s usually assigned upon birth in the United States, but if you had an undocumented birth or your parents didn’t ask for a SSN, you may need to request one as an adult.
Your SSN is very important and is required for several things, such as:
- Filing taxes
- Applying for jobs
- Opening credit card and bank accounts
- Getting a passport
- Filing legal documents
Because your SSN is a unique identifier, it’s usually not possible to be assigned another one. There are some exceptions in extreme cases, such as if you’re changing your identity for safety purposes. It’s very difficult to get a new SSN, and the approval process is long.
How can your Social Security number be stolen?
It’s surprisingly easy for hackers and criminals to get your Social Security number. This usually happens either by physically getting the information or through a security breach of some kind online. Below are a few of the ways a person can steal your Social Security number:
- Getting documents out of the trash. It’s common for papers such as medical bills or financial statements to have your SSN on them. If you toss these papers in the trash, criminals might actually go through it and then use the information.
- Overhearing you say your SSN. You may be asked for your Social Security number when you register at the hospital or when you’re dealing with banks and other financial entities. If someone hears you say your SSN, they can then use it for their own activities.
- Obtaining it through a data breach. Even if you take all the necessary precautions to keep your SSN safe, you have to hope that other companies will do the same. Data breaches—such as the 2017 Equifax breach—happen when hackers are able to access companies’ data banks.
Keep in mind that while a lot of paperwork may ask for your SSN, you don’t always have to share it. For example, your children’s school enrollment forms may have a line for your SSN, but this isn’t something they actually need. In any situation, you can ask why the other party needs your SSN and refuse to give it if you’re not comfortable.
5 things someone can do with a stolen Social Security number
So, what can someone do with your Social Security number? They can steal your identity and do all that that entails. Below are four common things criminals do when they steal your SSN.
1. Open new accounts
If someone has your SSN, they can open new accounts in your name. For example, they can open a checking account or set up an account with the local electric company. While some of these places will ask for more identifying information, such as a driver’s license, it’s common to only need a Social Security number and a matching date of birth to open an account.
2. File fraudulent tax returns
Your Social Security number is also used to file your taxes in most cases. Someone who has your SSN can file a fraudulent tax return in your name to be able to claim a refund or stimulus money. You often don’t know that a fraudulent tax return has been filed until you go to file your own. It can take months to straighten things out with the IRS, and this can keep you from being able to access your own refund in the meantime.
3. Obtain medical care
If someone has your SSN, they can use it to get medical care at doctor’s offices, hospitals and clinics. It can be months or even years before you realize this has happened. Many people don’t know until they see a collection notice on their credit report for an account they weren’t aware of or when they go to seek medical care at the same place.
4. Steal your benefits
If you use any kind of state or federal benefits, such as EBT, SNAP or Medicaid, they’re tied to your SSN. That means someone else can also access these benefits if they have your Social Security number. Criminals are known to target unemployment benefits as well, and if you need to file for these benefits yourself after someone else has used your SSN fraudulently, it can take months to go through the process of proving your identity.
5. Commit crimes
While criminals don’t actually use your SSN to commit crimes, they can provide it to law enforcement when they get caught. This could give you a criminal record you aren’t even aware of and can affect everything from getting a job to qualifying for an apartment.
How to know if your Social Security number has been stolen
People often find out their Social Security number has been stolen when they go to open an account or file their taxes and find out someone else has already done so using their name. However, other warning signs someone has stolen your SSN include:
- Getting mail in someone else’s name
- Receiving debt collection calls when you haven’t defaulted on anything
- Receiving new credit or debit cards in the mail you didn’t request
One of the best ways you can make sure no one has stolen your SSN is to keep an eye on your credit report. Regularly checking your credit report and bank accounts can ensure you catch that something may be amiss as soon as possible. If you see an error or an account you don’t recognize, make sure to follow up with the financial institution. It may just be an error—which will need to be addressed anyway—but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
What should you do if you think your Social Security number has been stolen?
If you think your SSN has been stolen, you should immediately reach out to your banks, credit card companies and other financial services providers to let them know. You’ll also want to inform the three main credit bureaus. It’s a good idea to file a police report to have an official record, and make sure to check the FTC’s official recommendations, which list who to notify and how.
Having your identity stolen can wreak havoc on your personal and financial life, but being as careful as possible with your SSN can help protect you. If you do find yourself the victim of identity theft or fraud, you may need to seek help from a credit repair company or legal counsel.
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