Your social security number (SSN) is one of the most crucial pieces of personal information you possess. It serves as a unique identifier that is linked to various aspects of your life, including financial records, employment, and government benefits.
Unfortunately, it is also a highly sought-after target for identity thieves and fraudsters. Protecting your social security number is vital for identity protection and safeguarding financial well-being. In this blog post, we will explore risks associated with SSN identity theft, the importance of protecting your social security number, and how to protect your SSN.
Why is it important to safeguard your social security number?
A social security number is a unique nine-digit identification number assigned to individuals by the Social Security Administration (SSA) in the United States. It was introduced in 1936 as part of the Social Security Act, primarily to track individuals' earnings and administer social security benefits.
But what is an SSN used for today?
Social Security Benefits: The primary purpose of the SSN is to administer social security benefits, including retirement, disability, and survivor benefits. It helps the SSA track an individual's earnings and contributions to determine eligibility and calculate benefit amounts.
Tax Identification: Your SSN is used as a tax identification number by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). It is required to file income tax returns, claim tax deductions, and receive tax refunds. Employers will also use an SSN to report employees' wages and taxes to the IRS.
Employment Verification: Employers use an SSN to verify the identity and work eligibility of employees. It is a critical component of the Form I-9, which must be completed by employees during the hiring process.
Financial Transactions: Financial institutions, such as banks, credit card companies, and lenders, often require an SSN for various purposes. It is used for identity verification, credit checks, opening bank accounts, applying for loans, and establishing credit history.
Government Benefits and Services: Your SSN is used to access various government benefits and services, including Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and unemployment benefits.
Educational Records: Educational institutions may request your SSN for identification purposes and to report information, such as student loans, grants, and educational tax credits.
Healthcare and Insurance: Health insurance providers and healthcare facilities may require a social security number to verify coverage, process claims, and maintain medical records. It is also used for identity verification in the healthcare system.
Background Checks: SSNs are commonly used for background checks conducted by employers, landlords, and other entities to verify an individual's identity, criminal history, and creditworthiness.
It's important to note that while the SSN is widely used for identification and verification purposes, protecting your SSN is vital as it is sensitive personal information that could be exploited.
Example of SSN Scams
In 2022, according to the Federal Trade Commission, victim losses as a result of identity theft scams amounted to nearly $1.8 billion dollars. And in March of this year, the Inspector General of the SSA released another warning statement, reminding citizens to be vigilant concerning social security number scams - especially given the recent bout of letters to citizens, pretending to be from the SSA.
The SSA announced that: “Recent reports to SSA OIG indicate that scammers are targeting individuals by producing letters that appear to be from SSA or SSA OIG … Tactics vary but scams consistently contain red flags, whether it’s a mailed letter, email, text message, or phone call, the scammer will present an unexpected problem or situation and then offer a solution with a hefty price tag.”
Important Reasons to Protect Social Security Numbers
If someone steals your social security number, it can lead to serious consequences and potential financial harm.
Identity Theft: With your SSN, an identity thief can assume your identity and fraudulently apply for credit cards, loans, or other financial accounts in your name. They can also open utility accounts, rent properties, or even commit crimes using your identity, potentially leading to legal repercussions for you.
Financial Fraud: A thief with your SSN can access your existing financial accounts, such as bank accounts or credit cards, and make unauthorized transactions or drain your funds. They may also redirect your mail to obtain sensitive financial statements and use them for fraudulent purposes.
Tax Fraud: Armed with your SSN, an identity thief can file false tax returns in your name to claim fraudulent refunds. This can lead to delays in receiving your legitimate tax refund or trigger investigations by tax authorities, requiring significant time and effort to resolve.
Employment Fraud: A thief may use your SSN to gain employment, potentially leading to issues with your own employment records, such as incorrect income reporting or discrepancies in tax records. It can also impact your eligibility for certain government benefits if it appears that you are earning more than the threshold.
Medical Identity Theft: Your SSN can be used to obtain medical services, prescription drugs, or insurance coverage fraudulently. This can lead to inaccurate medical records, billing discrepancies, and potential denial of legitimate healthcare services due to identity confusion.
Credit Damage: If an identity thief racks up debts or defaults on loans in your name, it can severely impact your credit history and credit score. This can make it difficult for you to obtain credit cards, loans, or favorable interest rates in the future.
Legal Troubles: If the thief commits crimes using your stolen identity, such as fraud or forgery, it could lead to arrest warrants or legal actions being pursued against you for crimes you didn't commit. Clearing your name in such situations can be challenging and time-consuming.
It's crucial to report any suspected SSN theft or identity theft to the relevant authorities, such as the Federal Trade Commission and local law enforcement. Additionally, monitor your credit reports, financial statements, and other accounts regularly for any signs of fraudulent activity. Taking immediate action and working to resolve the issues can mitigate the potential damage caused by SSN theft.
Is it safe to send your SSN over email? Is it safe to text social security numbers?
Sending Social Security numbers over email or text are not considered secure methods of transmitting sensitive personal information. Both email and text messages can be intercepted by hackers or unauthorized individuals who may gain access to the content. This puts your SSN at risk of being stolen and potentially used for identity theft or fraudulent activities.
If you need to share your SSN or any other sensitive information, it is best to use more secure methods of communication. Some alternatives include:
- Secure file transfer services: Use encrypted file-sharing services that require password protection or utilize secure online storage platforms.
- Secure online portals: Many organizations, such as banks, government agencies, and healthcare providers, offer secure online portals where you can safely transmit sensitive information.
- In-person or by mail: If possible, provide your SSN in person or through certified mail to ensure secure delivery.
It is crucial to prioritize the protection of your personal information and take steps to minimize the risk of unauthorized access.
How To Lock Social Security Numbers
By locking a social security number, you prevent anyone from changing or accessing your Social Security record. However, it is not necessarily a standard practice - as by doing so, although you prevent identity theft, you also lose out on financial flexibility, and are limited in the way you can use your own data.
If you wish to know how to lock social security numbers, you can visit the U.S. government’s myE-Verify and complete the necessary steps online. The website also provides instructions on how to unlock your social security number. However, before you take the more drastic step of locking your social security number, it’s worth considering other best practices on how to protect your Social Security number (SSN), as described below.
How To Protect Your SSN - 10 Top Tips
Knowing how to protect your social security number from being compromised is one of the most important factors in guarding your identity protection.
Memorize and Limit Sharing: The first step in protecting your social security number is to memorize it and avoid carrying your card with you. Additionally, be cautious about sharing your SSN, providing it only when absolutely necessary and to trusted entities, such as government agencies and financial institutions.
Beware of Phone Scams: Be cautious when receiving unsolicited calls asking for your social security number. Legitimate organizations will rarely ask for your SSN over the phone. If in doubt, hang up and verify the caller's legitimacy through official channels.
Strengthen Your Passwords: Ensure that your online accounts, especially those associated with financial institutions and government agencies, have strong, unique passwords. Using a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters will further aid in protecting your social security number. Avoid using easily guessable information like birthdates or names.
Employ Two-Factor Authentication: Enable two-factor authentication (2FA) whenever possible to provide an extra layer to protect your SSN. With 2FA, you'll need to provide a second form of verification, such as a unique code sent to your phone, in addition to your username and password.
Secure Physical Documents: Keep physical documents that contain your SSN, such as tax returns, bank statements, and medical records, in a secure location, preferably a locked cabinet or safe. Shred any documents containing sensitive information before disposing of them.
Stay Vigilant Online: Be cautious when sharing personal information online, especially on social media platforms. Fraudsters can piece together details from various sources to potentially obtain your SSN. Limit the personal information you share and adjust your privacy settings accordingly.
Regularly Monitor Your Credit: Regularly review your credit reports from major credit bureaus. Look for any suspicious activity or accounts you don't recognize. You can obtain a free credit report annually from each of the three major credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
Use Secure Wi-Fi Networks: When accessing sensitive information or conducting financial transactions online, ensure that you are connected to a secure Wi-Fi network. Public Wi-Fi networks may be susceptible to eavesdropping, making it easier for hackers to intercept your data. While using public Wi-Fi, it is recommended to utilize a VPN like RAV VPN for an extra layer of cyber protection.
Be Wary of Phishing Attempts: Beware of phishing emails, texts, or links that attempt to trick you into revealing your SSN or other personal information. Always verify the authenticity of the source before providing any sensitive details. Remember that scammers will say there is a problem or a prize, will pressure you to act immediately, and will tell you that must pay in a specific way.
Freeze Your Credit: Consider placing a credit freeze on your credit reports. This prevents anyone, including identity thieves, from accessing your credit information without your explicit permission. You can easily freeze and unfreeze your credit as needed.
Protecting your social security number is crucial to safeguarding your identity and financial security. By implementing these ten essential tips, you can significantly reduce the risk of your SSN falling into the wrong hands.
Remember to stay vigilant, adopt secure practices online and offline, and regularly monitor your accounts for any signs of suspicious activity. Be cautious whenever you enter your social security number online. Safeguarding your SSN is an essential step towards ensuring your peace of mind and protecting yourself from identity theft and fraud.