By obtaining your Social Security number, identity thieves have the easiest path to the greatest damage: stealing your money and government benefits. Getting medical care and other services in your name. Leaving a terrific tangle for the real you to clear up.
And what then? You can apply for a new "Social" but few do so successfully. In 2016, when 15 million people were victimized by identity theft, about 400 new numbers were issued, says Social Security Administration spokeswoman Dorothy Clark. Getting a new number is a laborious and often futile process in which economic hardship must be proven. And getting a new Social creates more hassles as your original number continues to follow you through life. So, your best defense is to protect those nine digits. Here's how.
Leave it Home. Never carry your Social Security card — what if your wallet or purse is stolen? The same goes for your Medicare card (which includes your Social), unless you’re seeing a health care provider for the first time. If you like the security of having an ID on you, carry a photocopy of your Medicare card with several digits blanked out.
When Asked, Don't Tell. Only a few organizations have a legal right to your Social — your employer, banks and lenders, investment funds, the IRS and government-funded programs such as workers’ compensation. When asked by others, just say no. The more your number is out there, the greater the risk of identity theft.
Guard the Final Four. Although most widely used and shared, the last four digits are in fact the most important to protect. These are truly random and unique; the first five numbers represent when and where your Social Security card was issued. Scammers can get those numbers by knowing your birth date and hometown. So don’t use the last four as a PIN. Don’t share them in emails. Ask companies to use an alternative identifier.
Freeze ‘em Out. If you place a security freeze on your file at the big three credit rating agencies, ID thieves who have your number can’t get loans in your name, because lenders can’t do the required credit check. To place a freeze, you need to contact each of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax (equifax.com; 800-349-9960), Experian (experian.com; 888-397-3742) and TransUnion (transunion.com; 888-909-8872). Freezes can be “thawed” as needed, such as when you are switching insurance providers.
Report Quickly. If your number is used for identity theft, contact the Federal Trade Commission at 877-438-4338 or at identitytheft.gov. File a police report and notify credit-reporting bureaus and banks. Report Medicare fraud to 800-447-8477, and if you suspect crooks are going for your tax refund, call the IRS at 800-908-4490. For lost or stolen Social Security cards, call the agency at 800-772-1213, or go to socialsecurity.gov/ssnumber.