Your Social Security Number (SSN) is one of the most important private details you have, and it’s worth protecting. It’s an identifier that tracks how much money you earn during your lifetime, helping the federal government calculate your Social Security benefits when you retire.
It’s hard to go anywhere without being asked for your SSN: on job applications, at the doctor, when you apply for a new credit card or bank account, and on and on. So it’s essential that you protect your Social Security number from unauthorized access and identity theft. Recovering from the effects of identity theft can take years depending on the damage done and how quickly you catch it.
How to Protect Your Social Security Number & Avoid Identity Theft
If someone steals your Social Security number, they can use it to commit identity theft — to open credit card accounts, get loans, apply for government benefits, or file for a tax refund in your name.
Identity theft can lead to significant financial, personal, and professional problems. So take steps to protect yourself and ensure no one steals your SSN.
1. Keep Your Social Security Card Somewhere Safe
Take the same precautions with your Social Security card as you would any other valuable document like your passport, financial records, and legal documents. Keep it in a safe place at home or in a safe deposit box until you must present it.
If you must carry your Social security card with you, keep it locked up and out of sight for as long as possible until you need to show it.
2. Don’t Give Your SSN to Strangers
Never give out your SSN to anyone who asks for it over the phone, email, or Internet.
If someone does ask for it, be suspicious. Ask why they need the number, then look up the company they claim they work for and see if they have a legitimate purpose for asking. For example, you might need to provide your SSN to verify your identity when you apply for a loan, but you should never give it out to someone who cold-calls you or shows up at your door trying to sell you something.
It’s especially common for people to impersonate Internal Revenue Service (IRS) representatives and ask for victims’ Social Security numbers. If this happens to you, don’t comply. The IRS will never call and ask for your SSN or bank information over the phone because they already have it. They communicate by official mail only.
3. Offer Other Forms of ID
In some cases, you can provide other forms of identification, like your passport, driver’s license, military ID, or utility bills with your current address. Some companies might even generate an internal identification number for you instead of requesting your SSN.
Using another identification source helps protect your identity. The fewer people with access to your SSN, the lower your chances of being a victim of identity theft.
4. Shred Documents With Personal Information
Identity thieves may use your discarded documents to gather enough information to access your identity and credit history. In general, don’t keep paper records any longer than is necessary because it increases your risk of identity theft. Shred documents that make it easy for someone to steal your identity.
This definitely includes any document containing SSNs, account numbers, bank statements and other financial information, insurance details, current or former addresses, or anything else a thief can use to answer identity challenges. Other sensitive documents include health insurance forms, doctor’s statements, prescription labels, and other medical paperwork. Shred those as well, even if they don’t show your SSN.
Invest in a quality paper shredder and take time each month to destroy documents with vulnerable information.
5. Protect Your Mail
If you’re going out of town, don’t leave mail in the mailbox. Request the USPS hold it at the office, or ask a neighbor to pick it up for you while you’re gone. Identity thieves target homes that seem unoccupied because their inhabitants won’t notice if mail goes missing.
Always drop outgoing mail in a locked mailbox. Look for blue postal service boxes around your neighborhood, or visit your local post office in person.
Finally, keep credit card applications out of thieves hands by reducing the amount of pre-approved credit card offers you receive in the mail. Visit optoutprescreen.com or call (888) 567-8688 to stop the offers. Opt out of other junk mail at dmachoice.org.
6. Monitor Your Accounts
Keep a close eye on your accounts that are linked to your SSN like checking, savings, retirement, investment, and other bank accounts. Check online accounts instantly for suspicious transactions or withdrawals on funds using the bank’s online service or app.
If you get monthly paper statements from your credit card companies and banks, make sure there aren’t any unexpected purchases or charges. If there are, contact the financial institution immediately to dispute the charge and open an investigation.
Many banks offer free credit monitoring services to account holders too. If yours does, take advantage.
7. Check Your Credit Report Regularly
You can order a free credit report every year from each of the three major credit bureaus at annualcreditreport.com. Review reports from all three bureaus because sometimes fraudulent activity shows on only one report and not another.
If you detect irregularities, notify the credit bureaus to create a fraud alert. A fraud alert requires the bureau to contact you before issuing credit in your name.
8. Enable a Security Freeze on Your Credit
All three major credit bureaus offer free security freezes (also known as credit freezes) that are easy to use. Create an account at Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion and activate a credit freeze while you’re not actively applying for credit.
Lenders cannot access your credit report while it has a security freeze. If you’re planning to apply for a loan or new credit card, you can temporarily unfreeze it immediately at any time. When you select the freeze’s end date, it automatically reactivates at the end of the period.
9. Create Strong Passwords
Staying safe online with strong passwords is an essential step toward protecting your identity. Weak passwords and reusing the same password for multiple accounts are recipes for disaster if one of those accounts is compromised.
Follow these guidelines to create strong, unique, better-organized passwords and access credentials:
- Use 12 Characters or More. Longer passwords are harder to crack so adding a few extra characters is a simple way to protect yourself.
- Use a Mix of Characters. Include uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters. Long and complicated passwords are extremely difficult to break.
- Only Use a Password Once. If your email and bank accounts have the same password, it’s easy for someone to steal your identity and assume control of your accounts.
- Opt For Multi-Factor Authentication. If your critical accounts offer a second step to logging in such as receiving a text, email, or authentication app, it helps thwart identity thieves.
- Get Organized With a Password Manager. It’s hard to keep track of all the passwords in your life. Password manager software like BitWarden, Lastpass, or 1Password can securely store your passwords so you can access them when you need them.
- Choose Security Questions Only You Know. If your friends or family members know enough about you (like your mother’s maiden name) or can look up the information online (like your old addresses), they can break through your security interrogation layer and access your account. Make sure you are the only person who knows the answers to security questions.
- Quickly Change Passwords After a Breach. If a company’s customer data is compromised and hackers gain access to it, log on to your account immediately and change your password.
- Never Use Your SSN As Your Password. It’s easy to guess and hackers can crack numeric-only passwords easily.
10. Create a My Social Security Account
When you create a My Social Security Account, you can access all of your past social security statements showing your earning history and government benefits you receive.
If you suspect someone’s used your SSN for employment purposes, your my Social Security account may show those earnings.
You can also use your account to request a replacement Social Security card, check on claims for Social Security income and Medicare, and determine if someone else is trying to use your benefits.
11. Use an Identity Theft Protection Service
Identity theft protection services monitor your identity for suspicious activity. They alert you of any changes to your credit report and help you restore your identity if it’s stolen. In addition, they help you correct errors on your credit report by contacting creditors, banks, utility companies, phone companies, and other companies you use.
Identity theft protection companies include Aura, Identity Guard, and Lifelock. Credit bureaus often have their own version of ID theft protection as well. Be sure you understand what (if anything) these providers charge.
12. Apply for an IRS Identity Protection PIN
An IRS identity protection PIN can protect your identity and prevent other people from filing tax returns in your name. You can set up an account at IRS.gov by verifying your identity. Then, the system helps you get a PIN on your account. Be sure to check for a new PIN by mail each year or log on to the IRS website and request one.
13. Know How to Spot a Scam
Scammers usually pretend to be someone you know like a distant family member, or someone with credibility like an IRS agent, police officer, bank employee, or tech company. They tell you there’s a problem with your account or have won a prize but there’s a fee to collect it.
A scammer’s primary weapon is to create a sense of urgency and pressure you to respond and act immediately. They will say anything to keep you on the phone and prevent you from checking out their story.
Finally, a scammer tells you to pay using an untraceable method like a gift card or money transfer.
Anyone calling from a legitimate business or agency will not object if you say you need to verify the information they’re giving you. They may even help you do so.
If you suspect someone is scamming you, report it to the FTC.
What to Do if You Suspect Your SSN Has Been Stolen
If you believe someone used your SSN and stole your identity, there are three steps to recovery. Note that you don’t need to apply for a new Social Security number after experiencing identity theft. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.
1. Report It to Government Agencies
First, visit identitytheft.gov or call 1-877-IDTHEFT to report the theft and get an identity recovery plan. Then, report it to the IRS online or by phone at 1-800-908-4490. Finally, notify the Social Security Administration using your My Social Security Account.
You can also report the incident to local law enforcement and to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), which may help build a federal case.
2. Request a Fraud Alert and Credit Freeze
Fraud alerts on your account compel businesses to verify your identity before offering credit. Filing with one credit bureau automatically extends to all of them without affecting your credit score.
Freezing your credit locks down your credit report so third parties can’t open new accounts in your name. You can lift the freeze temporarily or permanently at any time.
3. Contact Companies Where Fraudulent Use Occurred
If you see an unfamiliar credit account on your credit report, contact the company that opened it and let them know you’ve been a victim of identity theft. Then, close those accounts so the thief can’t use them anymore.
Identity theft can happen to anyone, and thieves and scammers get more creative every day. It pays to be suspicious when someone asks for information they don’t need — and vital to take additional steps to protect your identity.
Only share your SSN as a last resort. Ask anyone who requests it why they need it, how they’ll use it, what they’ll do to protect it, and what happens if you refuse to provide it. Ask if they’ll accept a different identification number too.
Add more layers of protection by destroying old documents on a regular basis, keeping your credit frozen when you’re not using it, and signing up with an identity theft protection service. Finally, check your credit every few months to make sure everything is in order.