When fraudsters stole Tony’s wallet in 2003, he assumed it was the cash they wanted. But, the thieves were more interested in his Social Security card. Over the next 14 years, scammers used Tony’s information to commit identity fraud at least 17 times, and accumulated a tax bill of over $45,000 in his name [*].
It’s estimated that hackers have stolen the Social Security numbers of 60-80% of Americans [*]. So, what can happen if your Social Security number (SSN) ends up in the wrong hands?
With your SSN and other personal information easily found online, scammers can commit credit card fraud, open new accounts, and receive medical care in your name — as well as divert your Social Security benefits.
This article will explain how fraudsters steal your SSN, what they can do with it, and how you can prevent Social Security theft from happening to you.
How Does Social Security Theft Happen?
Social Security theft occurs when someone steals your SSN and uses it to commit fraud or identity theft. Unfortunately, getting your SSN has become easier than ever.
Here are a few of the main ways that scammers steal your SSN:
Data breaches that expose sensitive information
A data breach is a cyberattack in which hackers steal sensitive information from companies and services. In the past few years, billions of pieces of sensitive information have been stolen by hackers and sold on the Dark Web.
For example, in August 2021, cybercriminals stole the Social Security numbers and other personal data from nearly 50 million T-Mobile customers [*]. Major data breaches have also occurred at Facebook, LinkedIn, Marriott, and Equifax.
Stolen wallets containing Social Security cards
If scammers steal your wallet, purse, or bag, they can gain access to your Social Security card. Even worse, they could also steal your driver’s license and credit cards — giving them everything they need to steal your identity and commit financial fraud. Try not to carry your Social Security card with you whenever possible.
Phishing attacks over email, text message, or phone calls
Phishing is a type of social engineering attack in which scammers pose as employees from organizations or businesses and use fraudulent emails, texts, or phone calls to trick you into sharing personal details. The messages appear legitimate, but they include malicious links to spoofed websites where scammers can steal your SSN.
In other types of phishing attacks, scammers may call and pretend to be from Medicare or another government organization and ask you to “verify” your SSN.
Dumpster diving and stealing your mail
If you throw away old financial statements, medical bills, or tax returns, fraudsters may go through your trash to steal your identity. A better approach is to shred documents before throwing them away.
What Can Someone Do with Your Social Security Number?
- Obtain a credit card or loan in your name
- Open a bank account in your name
- Empty your bank account
- Get a fraudulent driver’s license
- Receive medical care using your benefits
- Open a phone account
- Commit crimes that will be on your record
- Steal your benefits and Social Security checks
- Set up utilities using your identity
- File a fraudulent tax return
Your SSN is the key that unlocks your identity, financial accounts, and more. Here’s what scammers can do if they have your SSN:
1. Obtain credit cards or loans in your name
Fraudsters are mostly motivated by financial gain. And a stolen SSN gives them plenty of opportunities to steal your money or destroy your credit. In 2020 alone, there were 363,092 cases of fraud by new credit card accounts [*].
With just your SSN, name, and address, fraudsters can take out a credit card or loan in your name. Once they’ve opened a new account, they’ll quickly max out your credit and leave you with the bill — which can seriously damage your credit score and affect your ability to apply for credit in the future.
2. Open a bank account in your name
Fraudsters only need your SSN, date of birth, and address to open new bank accounts in your name. In rare instances, some banks will ask for your driver’s license as identification, which scammers can provide if they’ve stolen your wallet.
Why does this matter? Scammers can use bank accounts to launder money or even apply for overdraft protection and rack up debts in your name.
3. Empty your bank account
Someone with your SSN could steal money from your bank account if they have your account information. However, this would be difficult using only your SSN.
Unfortunately, scammers can often find all the information they need to empty your bank account from data breaches on the Dark Web. This could include your account numbers and passwords. Once in, scammers use digital wallets like Zelle and Cash App to transfer money without leaving digital footprints.
📚 Related: Did You Get Scammed on Cash App? Here's What To Do →
4. Get a fraudulent driver’s license
When scammers steal your SSN, they can use it to obtain a fraudulent driver’s license and pose as you. This scam (known as criminal identity theft) can be hard to trace. But some warning signs include warrants for arrests and traffic tickets issued in states you didn’t visit.
Contact your state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) if you suspect an identity thief obtained a fraudulent driver’s license in your name.
5. Receive medical care using your benefits
An identity thief who has your name and SSN can use it as identification to receive medical care — and send the bill to your health insurance company. Victims of medical identity theft pay an average of $13,500 to resolve issues related to the crime [*].
Apart from tainting your medical records, medical identity theft could have deadly consequences. For instance, you could receive improper care (due to the fraudster’s medical history being mixed up with yours) or be denied services.
6. Open a phone account
Scammers can open a new phone account under your name if they have your address, name, and SSN. For example, a woman discovered that her SSN had been stolen after receiving a Verizon Wireless bill for an account she didn’t open [*].
7. Commit crimes that will be on your record
Someone who steals your SSN can use it to avoid criminal responsibility. For example, fraudsters could use your SSN and name to identify themselves when law enforcement arrests them for a crime.
The scammer then walks away, and your name is tangled up in their criminal record — preventing you from getting jobs that require criminal background checks (in addition to tarnishing your reputation and causing other serious ramifications).
8. Steal your benefits and Social Security checks
Federal benefits such as Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) are tied to your SSN. A scammer with your SSN can divert your existing benefits checks and apply for other benefits — leaving you without support while you spend months trying to prove your identity.
📚 Related: How Scammers Claim Benefits in Your Name →
9. Set up utilities using your identity
Utility companies use your SSN when performing a credit check for new accounts. But if scammers have your SSN, they can easily open or upgrade their own utility accounts — such as gas or water — under your name. You may not learn of utility fraud until you receive notices for unpaid bills.
10. File a fraudulent tax return
Tax identity theft happens when fraudsters use your stolen personal information, such as your SSN, to file a tax return and claim a fraudulent refund in your name.
Unfortunately, you probably won’t realize you’ve become a victim until you’re unable to file your tax return. In the meantime, you can’t access your stolen tax refund — as it can take months to resolve the problem with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and prove you were a victim of identity theft.
How To Find Out If Your Social Security Number Is Stolen
Social Security number identity theft can go undetected for years, leading to substantial financial losses, damaged credit scores, and unnecessary stress and anxiety.
Here are a few ways to discover if your SSN has been stolen:
Check your “mySocial Security” account
You can open a free mySocial Security account to fill out online applications and estimate benefits.
Your online Social Security account is an easy way to check how your SSN has been used. And, as an added bonus, you’ll also receive notifications when someone attempts to open a duplicate account, log in to your account, or tries to receive benefits in your name.
📚 Related: How To Replace a Child’s Social Security Card →
Monitor your financial accounts for suspicious activity
Many scammers will try and use your SSN for financial gain. Credit monitoring tools can alert you in near real-time if someone tries to open new accounts in your name.
For example, Aura constantly monitors your credit, bank, and investment accounts for signs of fraud — and alerts you 4x faster than the competition if any suspicious activity is found.
Review your credit reports regularly
Your credit report and credit history can contain obvious clues that your SSN (or financial information) is being used by a criminal. Look for transactions that you don’t recognize, accounts you didn’t open, or hard inquiries you didn’t request. Also check for sudden changes in your credit score that you can’t explain.
You can get a free credit report from annualcreditreport.com to check for suspicious activity on your credit file.
📚 Related: The 7 Best Credit Monitoring Apps of 2022 →
Check your tax accounts for irregularities
Your IRS tax account allows you to check your balance, manage payments, and view tax records. Check in a few times a year (not just during tax season) to see the status of recently filed tax returns and ensure that you haven't fallen victim to a tax scam.
What Are Some Warning Signs of Social Security Theft?
- Suspicious accounts on your credit report. This is a clear sign that criminals have access to your most sensitive information and are using it for financial gain.
- Letters or calls from creditors or unknown companies. Don’t ignore unrecognized bills in the mail. These could be signs that your SSN was stolen and used to open new accounts.
- A change-of-address notification from the post office. Criminals will change your address to reroute mail — such as replacement or new credit cards — to an address that they own or manage.
- Statements and bills for accounts you didn't open. Any unrecognized account statement is a cause for worry. Contact the bank or credit card company’s fraud department immediately, and ask for details about the account.
- Suspicious tax notifications. If you receive a notification that a return was already filed under your SSN, contact the IRS immediately.
- An unknown employer verified your eligibility to work. This is a sign that someone is using your SSN to work. Contact Social Security immediately about the identity theft.
Was Your Social Security Number Stolen? Do This!
If you’ve discovered that your SSN was stolen, act quickly to mitigate the damage. Here are a few things you should do immediately:
Review your Social Security earnings records
On rare occasions, multiple people may accidentally use the same SSN when filing paperwork. (But, bad actors do it intentionally when trying to get a job or loan.) Review your earnings posted on your Social Security statement and contact the Social Security Administration (SSA) if you notice any inconsistencies.
You can report fraud to the SSA by calling their toll-free line at 1-877-438-4338 or online at ftc.gov/idtheft.
Contact the IRS
Contact the IRS if you notice that someone used your stolen Social Security number to file a tax return or receive a tax refund. You can report tax-related identity theft by responding to the IRS tax notice, completing Form 14039 Identity Theft Affidavit, or by calling 1-800-908-4490 for specialized assistance.
Report theft to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
Report the theft to the FTC at IdentityTheft.gov. You’ll receive a free recovery plan to help you deal with the consequences of SSN theft. An official FTC report is also required for disputing fraudulent accounts and filing a police report.
You can report Social Security theft in the following instances:
- Someone files a fraudulent tax return or receives a tax refund in your name.
- Someone files for government benefits in your name.
- Your Social Security number was exposed in a data breach.
Request a credit freeze
A credit freeze prevents anyone from accessing your credit file. This makes it much harder for scammers to apply for loans, take out credit cards, or open new accounts in your name. You can place a credit freeze on your file at any time — even if no fraud has occurred.
To place a credit freeze, contact each of the three major credit reporting agencies — Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion — and request a PIN for your account.
Alternatively, you can request a fraud alert on your account. Rather than restrict access to your credit file, a fraud alert tells lenders that they should take extra steps to verify your identity before extending your credit (although not all companies will follow through).
To place a fraud alert, you only have to notify one of the credit bureaus. By law, they’re required to notify the others of the alert.
Lock your SSN
While you can’t freeze your SSN, you can use Self Lock to lock your Social Security online through the E-Verify platform.
When an employer tries to verify your identity by entering your locked SSN, it returns an E-Verify mismatch. You can unlock your SSN when a new employer needs to verify your identity as part of the job application process.
File a police report
If your SSN was stolen and used for identity theft, you should file a police report with your local police department. A police report isn’t a requirement. But you should still file one in specific cases — like if you know the person who stole your SSN or have information that could help lead to an arrest.
A police report can also serve as additional documentation and increase your chances of receiving compensation for financial losses.
Contact companies where the fraudster used your SSN
Contact each company where fraudsters used your SSN to create an account.
For example, if a scammer used your SSN to open phone and bank accounts, contact both companies to close the accounts, and explain that you were the victim of identity theft. Additionally, if a fraudster used your Social Security number to create identification records with government agencies, inform the SSA, IRS, and your Secretary of State office that handles fraud identification.
Medicare is a Social Security benefit that’s available to people aged 65 and older. Scammers who have your SSN can create a Medicare account in your name and use it to commit medical identity fraud.
If you are a victim of Medicare fraud, call 1-800-633-4227 or file a complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services - Office of the Inspector General.
File a complaint with the FBI
Send information about the fraud to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) — a division of the FBI that accepts complaints about identity theft from third parties or victims. IC3 forwards your complaint to the appropriate local, state, or federal law enforcement for possible investigation.
How to Prevent Social Security Theft
- Leave your Social Security card at home. It’s unsafe to carry your Social Security card around unless you need it for an application. Security experts advise that you memorize your SSN and store IDs in a password-protected digital wallet to prevent fraud.
- Shred documents. Discarded documents and mail attract identity thieves. Shred all documents containing your personal identifying information (PII) before throwing them away.
- Keep personal information safe. Never share your SSN with someone you don’t know — especially in phone calls, emails, or text messages. If a company requests your SSN, ask why they need it and how they’ll protect your information.
- Use multi-factor authentication (2FA). Cybercriminals can use software to hack passwords in minutes (or, they can obtain your passwords through a data breach). Two-factor authentication maximizes your account security and ensures that you’re the only one with access to your account. For added security, use an authenticator app (rather than SMS) for receiving your 2FA codes.
- Secure your children's SSNs. Social Security theft doesn’t just happen to adults. One in 50 children were victims of identity theft in 2021 [*]. Aura offers Family Identity Theft Protection that monitors your children’s SSNs and protects them from identity theft.
- Set software to update automatically. Cybercriminals exploit security flaws to plant malware on your devices that can spy on you and steal your SSN (and other PII). Software updates plug security leaks by removing known flaws and vulnerabilities. Make sure you set your devices to auto-update software and operating systems in order to stay as secure as possible.
- Update privacy setting. Scammers often scour publicly available data — such as what you post on your social media accounts — to find information they can use against you. Edit your privacy settings on social media and other online accounts to prevent companies from sharing or displaying your data.
- Learn how to recognize phishing. Scammers often use phishing attacks to get you to unknowingly give up your SSN. Learn how to recognize a phishing email and avoid social engineering tactics that scammers use to trick victims.
- Use a different form of ID. When a company requests your SSN, ask why they need it and how they will handle it. Since most companies won’t cover losses if your SSN is compromised, stay safe by offering an alternative (such as your driver’s license).
- Consider signing up for identity theft protection: The FTC received over 1.4 million identity theft claims in 2021 — more than double the claims from 2020.
Aura’s #1-rated identity theft protection gives you peace of mind by safeguarding your identity, finances, and devices from scammers.
Here’s what you get with Aura:
- #1-rated identity theft protection for your entire family (including SSN monitoring). Aura monitors your most sensitive information — such as your SSN, name, address, home title, and more — and alerts you to signs of fraud. Aura can also protect your children and elderly family members from identity theft.
- Dark Web scanner to warn you if your identity is at risk. Find out if any of your sensitive information (passwords, SSN, etc.) have been leaked to the Dark Web.
- Credit monitoring with near real-time fraud alerts. Aura constantly monitors your bank, credit, and investment accounts for suspicious activity. Get alerted in near real-time if someone is trying to steal your funds or use your financial information for fraud.
- Antivirus and a VPN to protect your devices from hackers. Aura proactively protects you from hacking and identity theft with powerful antivirus software, a secure password manager, and a military-grade virtual private network (VPN).
- 24/7 U.S.-based Fraud Resolution specialists. Whenever you need help, Aura’s team of specialists is available.
- $1,000,000 insurance coverage for eligible losses due to identity theft. If the worst should happen, we have you covered.
Can You Change Your SSN If It’s Stolen?
The SSA advises against (and won’t always approve) requests to change your Social Security number. However, there are exceptional circumstances in which you can get a new Social Security number.
You may be assigned a new SSN if:
- Your SSN was issued to someone else.
- Your current SSN is being used by someone to stalk, harass, or endanger your life.
- Your family members received sequential SSN numbers, which is causing confusion.
- You’re a victim of identity theft and suffering ongoing harm — such as loan denial, refusal of medical care, and lower credit rating. You’ll need to first prove that you’ve exhausted other options to solve the problem.
📚 Read more: Can You Change Your Social Security Number (Guide) →
Get Proactive Security Against Social Security Theft with Aura
Scammers can do serious damage if they have your SSN. Rather than wait to see the warning signs of fraud, sign up for Aura’s identity theft protection with SSN monitoring. We’ll track how your SSN is being used, search for your sensitive information on the Dark Web, and alert you if anyone is targeting you or your family for identity theft.