Losing your Social Security number (SSN) can be a stressful experience. It can be particularly scary if you don’t know what to expect or even terrifying if you’ve just found out that a single company like Equifax can leak millions of SSNs in a single breach.
Truth is, committing fraud using just someone’s Social Security number is rather difficult. However, you will usually find someone’s SSN on documents with other personally identifiable information (PII), as seen in the Equifax leak, and that is dangerous.
A threat actor can use your Social Security number together with PII to commit many forms of identity theft. Among other things, they can use this information to apply for loans, avoid criminal responsibility, attempt to steal your tax refunds, social benefits, or even medical coverage.
What can a thief do with your Social Security number?
Because an SSN is unique to every individual, it is a very useful identification tool. But since it’s difficult to use on its own, criminals get quite crafty when it comes to using your Social Security number.
In essence, all types of SSN-related identity thefts use the number plus your additional information to bypass identification procedures in social and financial institutions.
1. Financial identity theft
An identity thief can use your SSN together with your PII to open new bank accounts or access existing ones, take out credit cards, and apply for loans all in your name. Often, you wouldn’t even know it was happening until you’d start receiving calls or emails from unknown creditors or get turned down when applying for a mortgage.
Financial identity theft is the most common type of all fraud that uses SSNs. It affects around 5% of Americans every year, resulting in losses worth billions of dollars.
2. Social Security benefits fraud
This type of fraud aims at using an SSN to steal someone’s Social Security benefits or file for unemployment in their name. Just like with financial identity theft, you may not know someone else is profiting from you until you apply for social benefits yourself and get denied.
The recent COVID-19 stimulus frauds, when identity thieves steal others’ stimulus payments, fall under the social benefits fraud category.
3. Tax identity theft
Tax identity theft is a lot like Social Security benefits fraud. The only difference is that the identity thief uses your SSN and PII to file tax refunds instead of benefits in your name.
Tax identity theft is also known as Stolen Identity Refund Fraud (SIRF) and, while not as common as financial identity theft, still costs people millions of dollars every year.
4. Medical identity theft
Using your SSN and personal information, an identity thief could avoid paying for medical care or emergencies themselves. This can have negative effects on your insurance. If you become a victim of medical identity theft, you may begin receiving unfamiliar bills and notices and be denied medical coverage.
5. Criminal identity theft
Criminal identity theft is when someone uses your SSN and PII to avoid criminal responsibility. This can allow the identity thief to get away scot-free from a speeding ticket or, in some cases, even arrest. Instead, this criminal’s responsibility will fall on your shoulders which can come back to bite you later in life when seeking employment or dealing with other legal issues.
6. Utility fraud
Fraudsters can use your information and Social Security number to open or upgrade utility service agreements. This can include water, gas, electricity, phone, internet, cable, or other services. Like with the rest of SSN identity theft types, you may not know someone’s receiving free utilities in your name until you begin receiving unpaid bills.
What can you do if someone steals your SSN?
If your Social Security number gets stolen and you wish to protect yourself from possible harm, there are a few things you can do:
- Report identity theft to the Federal Crime Commission.
- If you’re experiencing any of the above-mentioned types of identity theft, report them to the responsible government organ.
- Freeze your credit with the top 3 credit bureaus. Freezing your credit will not impact your credit score. However, it will prevent you, or anyone else using your information, to apply for loans, open bank accounts, or rent any apartments as long as the freeze is active.
Can you freeze your Social Security number?
You cannot freeze your Social Security number itself, but you can freeze your credit. However, you should only consider doing this if you’re very concerned or start receiving unfamiliar bills, credit notices, or if your bank warns you of identity theft.
Can someone access my bank account with my Social Security number?
Someone could try to access your bank account using your Social Security number, but it alone wouldn’t be enough. They’d need a lot more personal information than that to get to your finances.
Don’t believe me? Try calling your bank and say you’ve forgotten your password. You’ll be surprised at the range of questions they’ll ask you, from “What is the second letter of your mother’s maiden name?” to “When and how big was your last deposited check?” and “Is the number you’re calling from your personal one?”
Many times, you’ll be required to physically show up if you want to reset your bank account password. Why?
Anyone can call a bank having stolen someone else’s Social Security number, but it’s not enough to prove your identity. Usually, a bank would not even ask for your SSN if you called them because it is not a good way to verify who you are.
Without additional information, no one could access your bank account with your Social Security number alone. In terms of bank security, you should worry about other things like a poor password, lack of two-factor authentication, and general carelessness when online banking.
How can someone get your Social Security number?
There are several ways someone can acquire your SSN and other personal information. Mainly, you should watch out for the following:
- Data leaks. I’ve already covered the infamous Equifax scandal at the beginning of this article. However, data breaches happen every day, especially with phishing being on an absolute spree since COVID-19 started. This way, personal information held in “safe” databases can escape into the dark web where cybercriminals trade and exploit it for personal gain. Data leaks are by far the easiest and most common way to acquire peoples’ SSNs and other personal information.
- Stolen personal belongings. Losing your bag, wallet, or mail to a crook can expose a lot of your personal information. After all, we virtually carry our lives in our pockets!
- Phishing. Either by email, text, or phone, phishing can try and lure your credentials and personal information out of your own hands. Educate yourself on how to avoid it!
- Stolen documents. It’s also possible for someone to physically steal records or documents with your personal information from work or home. However, these instances are rather rare since most data is stored online these days.
- Trash. Do not throw your documents, bank statements, or checks out into the trash like they’re useless – they might seem so to you, but they contain your personal information.
How can I check if my SSN was leaked?
Data leaked during breaches usually ends up on the dark web. There are databases online that can scan the web for leaked personal information. Mostly, these include email addresses, which is not a lot.
Surfshark Alert can check the web for leaks of your emails and passwords, Social Security numbers, and credit card information. It will also continue to monitor your information and will notify you if it finds that any of your data leaked on the web.
Here’s how you can check your SSN for leaks with Alert in 6 steps:
- Log in to your Surfshark account.
- On the left side of your panel, navigate to Alert and select Scan IDs.
- Select the United States and click Continue.
- Input your Social Security number and click Scan.
- Wait for the Scan to finish. This shouldn’t take more than a few seconds.
- Voila, your SSN is scanned. If you wish to keep it under regular monitoring, add it to your dashboard!
How can I know if someone is using my SSN?
As I mentioned before, it is not always obvious or even possible to immediately determine whether an identity thief is using your Social Security number. If you suspect that might be the case, there are a few things you can do:
- Contact the Social Security Administration and ask them to help you out with the problem.
- Regularly check your credit reports.
- Monitor your federal and state tax accounts.
So, should you keep your SSN in a safe?
No, you shouldn’t. Instead, you should keep all your personally identifiable information (PII) as safe as possible.
In today’s world, our personal information is mostly digital. Online security, cyber hygiene, and browsing habits are more important than ever. Take some time to educate yourself on how to be safe online, and you won’t have to worry about losing your personal data or resources!