Even if retirement is still years away — whether you’re 45 or 60 — now is the time to set up your Social Security account online. Why? Because it’s not just a handy tool to manage your benefits. It can also help prevent your benefit payments from ending up in the hands of identity thieves.
Scammers who have your Social Security number and address, for example, can go online and set up a “My Social Security” account in your name — if you haven't already done so.
The big risk comes if you’re age 62 or older. Thieves could start collecting your retirement benefits, and you might not find out about it until years later when you apply for Social Security.
Only one account is permitted per Social Security number, so claiming your account early is key. “People need to plant their flag, because someone could just sign up for you,” says Brian Krebs, a cybersecurity expert who runs the Krebs on Security website.
The account is the primary way to learn about your benefits, and more than 30 million people already have accounts. The Social Security Administration (SSA) used to send out paper benefits statements, but last year the agency decided to switch to online notification as a way to save money. You can also use the online service to get a benefit verification letter (which you may need if you’re applying for, say, a loan), change your address or phone number, or manage the direct deposit of benefits.
To set up your account, the site first asks for standard identification details. Once the agency pinpoints your file, you will be asked a series of multiple-choice questions based on details in your credit report. For example, to further verify your identity, it might ask the name of the bank that holds your mortgage or the name of your credit card issuer.
As an additional safeguard, since June of last year the My Social Security site has required a two-step log-in process. After you enter your username and password, you are sent an email or a text message with a verification code that you must enter on the website. That code helps the SSA confirm that you are — in fact — you.
Krebs noted that in the Social Security identity theft cases he’s seen, the victims ultimately had to visit a Social Security office to resolve the problems.