Last year’s Equifax data breach released the personal information (including social security numbers – SSNs) of 140 million Americans to fraudsters and cyber thieves. Each instance was an “identity theft,” which occurs when someone uses another person’s personally identifying information without their permission and for personal gain. Most Americans don’t know how cybercriminals use their private information but are horrified when they find themselves to be the victim of the criminal activity. Knowing what to do if your SSN is stolen can reduce both the headache and the financial pain of being victimized by an identity thief.
How Criminals Use Stolen SSNs
With the correct related information, thieves use your financial tools the same way you do:
- Withdraw money from your bank accounts – Your SSN is often the significant information used to “verify” that it’s you using your account. Some thieves will drain little bits of cash off at a time, so you don’t notice that it’s happening. Others will clean out the account entirely, leaving their victim with an empty account and unpaid bills or bounced checks.
- Take out credit cards and loans – When they also have the name and address of the victim, thieves frequently open bank accounts and new credit card or loan accounts with the stolen information, then proceed to purchase goods for their personal use. If you believe that someone is opening lines of credit and taking out loans in your name, you should reach out to the three big credit agencies as soon as possible to get the issue cleared up right away.
- Claim a tax refund – Sometimes scammers will file a tax return using the stolen identity; without a report telling them otherwise, the IRS will send your tax refund to that false filer. In 2017, the average tax refund was $2,769.00, and identity theft victims were stunned when they learned that another person had already claimed their refund.
- Get a driver’s license – A SSN is required in most states for people to obtain legal driver’s licenses. When thieves use a stolen SSN in conjunction with a phony name and address, the resulting license is issued in your name with their picture, and they can use it to present “proof” of their “identity,” just as you use your license.
- Receive healthcare benefits– Some criminals will use the stolen SSN to obtain medical care from one or more healthcare professionals. They aren’t concerned with making the co-payment, and often the victim’s insurance company won’t cover the services they access. When those bills go unpaid, you’re the one who gets the calls from the collection agencies.
Protecting Your Identity
If you are the victim of identity theft, there are steps you can take to reduce your losses and recover your privacy.
- Report it. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) manages a website specifically for identity theft reports, IdentityTheft.gov, so be sure to submit a report as quickly as possible. Reporting the theft to your local police is strongly advised, as well.
- Place a fraud alert on your credit reports. The “Big Three” credit reporting agencies (Equifax, TransUnion and Experian) will flag any further use of your SSN for 90 days. You can extend that period to seven years by providing an Identity Theft Affidavit.
- Place a credit freeze on your credit reports. If you are not in the market for loans or credit, the best way to protect yourself is to exercise your legal right to a credit freeze. You can create a Credit Freeze Request with Rocket Lawyer. Answer a few simple questions to create a tailored set of letters that you can easily download, print, and mail to all three credit bureaus.
- Contact the companies where fraud occurred. Those businesses don’t want to victimize you further and they need to know that they, too, have been scammed. Larger companies often have dedicated fraud departments to assist victims in these cases.
Can I change my SSN?
It is not an easy fix but it can be done. To change your Social Security number you will need to prove that you have multiple, ongoing problems with someone using your number. If you choose to apply, you’ll need proof of your identity, age, citizenship or immigration status. Getting a new number means a blank slate so credit will have to be built again. The old number will remain valid but will no longer be associated with your new credit report. However, you will have to keep monitoring it for future incidents.
*Applying to change your SSN is not recommended in most cases and many applicants are denied.
Your SSN is a critical piece of your personal identity and should be protected from exposure or theft. If you’ve had your identity stolen, Rocket Lawyer is here to help. You can talk to a lawyer or check out our blog post on how to protect your credit.