For scammers and identity thieves, your Social Security Number is one of the most hotly sought-after pieces of your identity. A dedicated scammer can find ways to earn a few dollars out of anything from your social media logins to your email address and phone number, but your SSN is the fraud artist’s jackpot.
The sky’s the limit for a criminal with an SSN, so it’s vitally important to know and recognize that yours has been stolen. Here, we break down how to find out if someone is using your Social Security Number.
How Do I Check to See If Someone Is Using my Social Security Number?
There are several signs that may indicate your identity has been stolen, especially if you see a number of them at once. Any head-scratching notices from the IRS about things you don’t recall doing (or failing to do) are grounds for alarm. So are unexplained fluctuations in your credit score, notices of new accounts you haven’t opened and bills for things you don’t remember buying.
If you suspect your SSN has been stolen, logging into your My Social Security account should be your first step. Check the earnings recorded against your SSN for the current year, and make sure they correspond to your own actual earnings. If they don’t, you’ll know someone else is using your SSN. You should also pull a credit report from one of the three main reporting agencies (you’re entitled to a free one each year from each agency) and look for new credit applications you haven’t made.
These methods only work when your SSN and identity are already actively exploited. If you want to catch any potential breaches at an earlier stage, when you can nip them in the bud, consider signing up for Spokeo Protect. Spokeo’s new identity protection solution monitors the dark web where criminals sell your identity, so if your information shows up for sale you’ll receive a real-time alert and can take protective steps early enough to limit the damage.
How Do They Get My SSN?
There are a lot of ways your SSN can fall into the wrong hands. There have been a number of high-profile data breaches in recent years, but those are relatively rare because it requires an attacker with a serious skill set. Usually criminals look for the easy option, which often means a phone scam, social media scam or a “phishing” email that supposedly comes from your bank, the Social Security Administration or a trusted company you do business with.
Modestly tech-savvy criminals can sit in a car out at the curb (or in a nearby apartment) and monitor your home Wi-Fi network for your SSN, passwords and other personal information. The less-skilled can go completely old-school and simply raid your mailbox in search of your SSN or account numbers.
What Can Criminals Do With My SSN?
With your SSN and a bit of chutzpah – which con artists don’t lack by nature – a criminal with your Social Security Number in hand can monetize almost every aspect of your life. For example, a fraudster could apply for credit using your SSN, maximize it and then disappear, leaving you with a sudden burden of debt. Even worse, if that credit was secured by the equity in your home, you might find yourself threatened with foreclosure.
Someone with a criminal record might use your SSN instead of their own when applying for a job, which can seriously complicate your life come tax time. Scammers might also file a return in your name, claiming a refund or deductions that you’re entitled to. You might also find yourself assessed at a higher level, if your “evil twin” has earned income on your SSN that wasn’t reflected in your own return.
In short, there are a lot of ways scammers can make your life miserable. You should eventually be able to get things put right, but often it’s at a serious cost to your time and money.
How Can I Protect Myself?
If you discover that your SSN or other personal information has been stolen, there are a number of steps you should take as quickly as possible.
First, file a report at the Federal Trade Commission’s IdentityTheft.com website. The site will give you a recovery plan outlining the other steps you need to take, from notifying the IRS and your banks to requesting a credit freeze and (where appropriate) reporting the fraud to local law enforcement.
That kind of reactive response after the fact is important, but proactive avoidance is even better. Remember the old adage about the ounce of prevention and the pound of cure? The ounce of prevention, in this case, includes things like staying up to date on basic internet safety and the latest scams (starting right here on the Compass blog), securing your home network, avoiding public Wi-Fi when you have sensitive data to send and even something as simple as securing your physical mail from prying eyes.
It’s difficult to protect yourself completely and still live in the modern world, but criminals are pragmatic and usually look for the easy score. If you take the necessary steps to not be that easy score, you’ll reduce the likelihood of being victimized.