Having your Social Security number or card stolen isn’t quite like getting your bank account information taken — though granted, both are stressful experiences. The major difference is that you can get a new bank account number, while the Social Security Administration very rarely issues new Social Security numbers.
Why you need a Social Security number
If you’re unsure what an SSN is, the Social Security Administration loosely defines it as a nine-digit number for identity-tracking purposes. Whenever you start a new job or apply for government benefits, you need your Social Security number: it will be used to verify your identity and record earnings. You can locate your Social Security number on your Social Security card — if you can’t find your card, make sure you reach out to the Social Security Administration directly.
How Social Security number theft occurs
How someone finds out and steals your identity (or Social Security number) can happen in a variety of ways. They could gain your Social Security number by exploiting data breaches, sifting through the trash for personal documents, or using any number of other approaches. The thieves can then sell your identity to the highest bidder on the dark web.
What happens when someone’s identity is stolen
Once an identity thief has your Social Security number, they can commit all sorts of financial fraud with it, potentially leaving you on the hook for their misconduct.
Look at it this way: Social Security numbers are wrapped up in most aspects of Americans’ lives — employment, medical history, taxes, education, bank accounts, and so on. Below is a list of just a few things someone can do with your SSN if they get their hands on it.
1. Open financial accounts
Your Social Security number is the most important piece of personal information a bank needs when extending you credit or opening an account. With that number, a thief can get credit cards or loans, and when it comes time to repay them, they won’t, damaging your credit in the process. Those missed payments are tied to your Social Security number, so they’ll end up on your credit report and could impact your ability to apply for any type of loan or new account in the future.
Once you spot suspicious transactions, you can use your credit scores and credit reports to detect fraud and put an end to it. Unfortunately, it could take years for the fraudulent information to be removed from your credit report and, as a result, for your credit scores to recover.
2. Get medical care
Someone using your Social Security number could also undergo medical treatment, effectively tainting your medical records. Inaccurate medical records can have deadly consequences — for example, imagine what could happen if you received treatment based on a false history listing the wrong blood type. Additionally, it’s possible for thieves to poach your health insurance coverage, which could leave you in a bind when you need it.
3. File a fraudulent tax refund
Taxpayer identity theft is a growing problem. Identity thieves use stolen Social Security numbers to get a fraudulent refund, which then delays any refund the victim is rightfully owed. In 2016, the IRS identified $227 million lost in fraudulent tax returns, and this issue is bound to become even more problematic in the wake of massive data breaches like the 2017 Equifax hack.
So the sooner you file your taxes, the more likely you’ll get your refund before an identity thief has an opportunity to take advantage of your stolen identity. You’ll know someone stole your identity if your return is rejected as a duplicate — then you get to start the process of resolving the fraud and, if necessary, getting the refund you deserve.
4. Commit crimes
Getting your Social Security number might just be a fraction of the thief’s crimes. If the identity thief gets arrested for another crime and gives your Social Security number to law enforcement, you’ve become tangled in their criminal history. Their criminal record could prevent you from getting jobs or interfere with anything else that requires a criminal background check.
5. Steal your benefits
A thief could also use your Social Security number to file for unemployment or Social Security benefits, depleting those resources and preventing you from accessing that assistance when you need it later on.
How to find out if your Social Security number has been stolen
Thieves can operate under your identity for years without discovery, and some of these crimes are very difficult to detect. One of the best things you can do is regularly check a free credit report. Review your credit report thoroughly for unauthorized accounts or public records not related to you. These red flags could indicate clerical errors or identity theft. Either way, you want to watch out for it and act as soon as you see something suspicious. You can also check out these other ways you can find out if you’re a victim of identity theft.