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Social Security number theft: What to do if someone steals your SSN


Social Security number theft and identity theft are major headaches that can crush your credit score. Here’s what to do if someone steals your SSN number.


The importance of your Social Security Number can’t be exaggerated. The nine-digit number is your connection to the Social Security Administration but goes far beyond that. It has become one of the most commonly used numbers for verifying identity. Unfortunately, identity thieves realize the potential of these numbers and Social Security theft costs victims billions of dollars in damages each year.

You need a Social Security number to get a job, collect Social Security benefits, apply for federal loans, open bank accounts, buy a home and sign up for private insurance. 

The unique number is a way for the government to keep track of your lifetime earnings and the number of years worked to calculate Social Security benefits later in life. 

Social Security Number theft happens when a thief gains control of your unique number and uses it for their own advantage. There are many ways a thief can use this number and the damage they can do with it is significant.

What is Social Security Number Theft?

Social Security Number theft or Social Security Number fraud is big business for thieves. The Social Security Administration estimates that in 2019 the administration made $7.9 billion in improper payments due to fraud.

The problem is a growing one. In 2017 the number of Social Security Numbers compromised in data breaches surpassed the number of credit card numbers, according to a study by Javelin Strategy & Research.

Social Security Number theft can wreak havoc on your credit score. The effort and time required to undo that sort of damage can often take years.

Once hackers or thieves have your SSN, they can make false statements on claims, file claims under your SSN, file fraudulent tax returns for refunds, open bank accounts and credit cards and more. A SSN, especially one with a good credit score attached, can be used to extract serious money quickly via these scams.

Related: How to know if someone is using your social security number

How thieves steal SSNs

There are several ways thieves can get a hold of your SSN. The most obvious is by stealing the physical Social Security card. Be sure to keep it in a secure place. This is a no-brainer.

Things get more tricky when we go online. The three most used methods for stealing Social Security Numbers are phishing, malware and data breaches. 

Phishing attempts are nothing new. Thieves use ever-more convincing methods to trick you into entering your information in phishing attempts. They often create fake websites that resemble websites of real companies that you may use regularly. The goal is to trick you into entering your private information. Often scammers will send spoofing emails with links asking you to re-enter your login information or even your SSN.

Malware falls more under the traditional hacker category. Thieves who use this method to steal personal information, including Social Security numbers, infect your computer or mobile devices with software. That software can record your keystrokes, and if you type in your social security number at some point, that will be recorded. Other types of malware steal information from files on your device. 

Data breaches are a major threat to consumers because it’s difficult to manage your data, including Social Security Number, once submitted to a website or service and stored on their servers. 

Banks, hospitals, schools, libraries and stores keep your personal data in their databases. Unfortunately, many of these institutions have lax data security practices. Hackers who break into these servers “breach” the data of thousands or even millions of users, leaking their personal information out into the world — and dark web.

Related: The 5 most common types of data breaches

What to do if someone steals your SSN 

If you become aware that someone has stolen your Social Security Number or have a suspicion, take these steps immediately. It’s essential to act quickly to prevent any further harm.

The first step is to contact one of the credit-reporting agencies, TransUnion, Experian or Equifax. Here’s how to contact the Big Three credit bureaus.

When you get someone on the lie, tell them you would like to place a credit freeze and a fraud alert on your credit file. 

Putting a credit freeze on your file will block lenders from your credit report without your approval. The good thing is, it’s easy to unfreeze your account. Better safe than sorry.

The next step is to report the identity theft to the Social Security Administration and other government agencies. 

The first you should contact is the Federal Trade Commission via identitytheft.gov. You can also file a police report with your local police department, which can assist you down the road.

The third step is to report your identity theft to the Internet Crime Complaint Center. Doing so will distribute your report to local, state and federal authorities and create an official report. This step is the most important when asking what to do if someone steals your SSN.

Can I get a new Social Security Number?

If you were late to discover the theft of your SSN and significant damage has been done to your credit, it’s possible. 

First off, getting a new SSN is not easy. To do so, you have to prove the identity theft and also that the theft has led to you facing problems with law enforcement, the IRS or that your bad credit can’t be fixed.

There are significant downsides to obtaining a new SSN. The first is that your new number will have an empty credit history. This means you will have to start from zero, building up your credit score, which can take years.

If you decide you want to pursue this option, you need to start by filling out a SSN application form. It is up to the Social Security Administration to decide whether or not to grant your request for a new number. But, if you’re trying to figure out what to do if your identity is stolen, it’s going to be the best route to take. Your new SSN will be free of fraud and clear of potential headaches.