Your Social Security number is an identifier that’s as unique as your fingerprint, belonging to you and you alone — that is, until a criminal steals those digits that can open the door to financial fraud and identity theft.
If you think your Social Security number can’t be stolen, don’t be so sure. Criminals can obtain the number through major data breaches at large companies, hospital systems, small businesses and organizations and then can use the number fraudulently and/or sell it to other scammers.
Thieves can also obtain your Social Security number if they steal your wallet or purse, hack into unsecured websites where you’re provided the digits or pose as a government agency asking for your Social Security number, according to the Social Security Administration. If you don’t shred documents that show your Social Security number, scammers might even find it in your trash.
Read on for the top ways hackers and scammers can use your stolen Social Security number for criminal and identity theft purposes.
Link it to other personal information
Criminals won’t typically get far with your Social Security number alone, but that’s not a problem for dedicated scammers.
“If somebody has just a Social Security number and no other information tied to it, the number is not as valuable,” says Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), a nonprofit organization that offers free assistance to consumers and victims of identity theft crimes.
But when scammers tie additional information such as your name, date of birth, phone number and other data publicly available online to your Social Security number, “then they’re off to the races,” says Velasquez.
From gaining control of your financial accounts to pocketing a fraudulent tax refund under your name, scammers with your Social Security number can create all kinds of problems for you and your identity.
Sell it on the ‘dark web’
The dark web contains places on the internet that don’t show up on traditional search engines, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Some sites on the dark web are legitimate, but the dark web is packed with criminals selling stolen consumer data, including Social Security numbers.
The dark web also contains sites that sell cybercrime tools such as malware, malicious software that can damage your computer or mobile device and/or allow unauthorized access to your online accounts.
If your Social Security number and other personal information is for sale on the dark web or elsewhere, stopping criminals from buying the unique digits is virtually impossible.
However, you can take steps to help prevent or spot some forms of identity theft with your Social Security number by monitoring free copies of your credit report for unfamiliar accounts. You can order a free copy as often as once per week through Dec. 31, 2023, at AnnualCreditReport.com.
You could also place a fraud alert on your credit with major credit bureaus Experian, TransUnion and Equifax so you’re notified when someone applies for credit under your name. Better yet, block anyone from obtaining credit in your name by placing a freeze on your credit.
Open fraudulent financial accounts
A criminal who has your Social Security number, along with other information about you gleaned from the internet or dark web may be able to open new financial accounts under your name without your knowledge. We’re not talking just credit cards, either.
“It could be a car loan, a mortgage, or even student loans. Any new financial instrument is on the table,” says Velasquez. Fortunately, you can take steps to prevent fraudsters from opening fraudulent financial accounts under your name by placing a credit freeze — which blocks anyone from opening new credit accounts in your name — on your credit with the three major credit bureaus.
To freeze your credit (and unfreeze when you need to apply for new credit), you must contact each of the three major credit bureaus — Equifax, TransUnion and Experian — separately. “A credit freeze will absolutely stop someone from opening new accounts in your name,” says Velasquez.
Access existing financial accounts
A criminal with your Social Security number and other data about you could potentially gain access to your existing bank, credit card, loan and other accounts. The fraud becomes more difficult, however, when you’ve placed additional identity authentication measures on your accounts, says Velasquez.
Examples of protections you can add include multi-factor identification such as a fingerprint scan, facial recognition, inputting a code sent to your smartphone and answering security questions you’ve chosen.
File false tax returns
Scammers can use your Social Security number to file false tax returns under your name with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) or the tax agency in the state where you live.
Many people are under the false impression that they can’t be victims of tax identity theft because they’ve structured tax withholding amounts so they won’t get a refund when they file their income taxes, says Velasquez. Your withholding designations won’t matter, however, if a scammer files a fraudulent tax return under your name and Social Security number before you file one.
“The scammers aren’t filing your return. They’re filing a false return that is structured in a way to maximize a refund so that they can circumvent that money,” says Velasquez. So, instead of that refund going into your bank account, it goes to the scammer’s account information on the fraudulent return.
The false return could potentially get pushed through before the IRS receives W-2s and other supporting documents from your employer. Then when you file your return, the IRS shows that you’ve already received your refund.
“The IRS gets a snapshot of you once per year, and there are changes happening all the time,” says Velasquez. “People get married, divorced, add or lose dependents, move or change jobs and bank accounts. Those things happen in the normal course of life. So, to say, ‘how could the IRS not notice these changes?’ is a harder proposition than most people realize.”
For more information on how to spot the signs and help protect yourself against tax identity theft, visit the Taxpayer Guide to Identity Theft on the IRS website.
Commit medical identity fraud
To commit medical identity theft for medical services through your health insurance provider, a criminal would need your insurance information, along with their Social Security number, says Velasquez.
“But if it’s on a cash basis, they just provide your data and your Social Security number and say, ‘This is me, bill me,’ and they get the medical goods or services — and leave the person who actually owns those credentials with all of the bills,” says Velasquez.
Medical identity theft can also lead to your medical records being mixed with those of the fraudster, resulting in improper diagnosis and/or treatment. The pharmacy could also deny filling a prescription because the criminal is already getting a prescription for the same medication under your name or a medication that would interact with the drug you need.
Stick you with a criminal record
If a criminal who has your Social Security number gets arrested or stopped for a moving violation and has no ID, they could potentially provide your number to law enforcement as a form of identification. Then you may unwittingly end up with a criminal record that causes trouble down the line.
“People have called us saying, ‘I just went to get a background check on for this new job I’m supposed to have and they told me I didn’t pass the background check, because I’m in prison,'” says Velasquez.
“They provide it to law enforcement and depending on the jurisdiction and how serious the crime is, it may or may not be detected that they’re providing false information,” says Velasquez, who says this is one of the least common forms of identity fraud, but “the most difficult to unwind.”
Apply for government benefits
At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the number of claims for unemployment benefits soared, averaging around 800,000 claims filed each week in the first quarter of 2021, according to the Federal Reserve System. So, of course, scammers jumped on the chance to file with overworked clerks fraudulent unemployment claims under someone else’s name to pocket the weekly payment.
In fact, a July 2022 congressional testimony report issued by the U.S. Labor Department estimates there may have been at least $163 billion in unemployment claim overpayments and benefits obtained since the beginning of the pandemic through fraudulent unemployment claims.
With this scam, “The fraudster has your name and Social Security number and they apply for unemployment benefits using your data,” says Velasquez.
Most victims of unemployment fraud have no idea that a claim was filed under their name with someone else collecting the benefits until they receive a notice or tax form from their state unemployment agency, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
If you find out you’re the victim of unemployment fraud, visit the Labor Department’s State Directory for Reporting Unemployment Identity Theft to report the fraud to the state that paid the benefits.
Set up utility accounts under your name
Someone who has your Social Security number, along with other personally identifiable information, could potentially set up or upgrade gas, electricity, water, cable, internet and other accounts under your name, according to security software company Norton.
You may not find out about this fraud until you get a utility bill or a past due or collections notice, says Norton. Or you might find out about it when the new account shows up on your credit report.
Monitoring your credit report every few months can alert you to new utility and financial accounts fraudulently opened under your name. If you notice any unfamiliar accounts on your credit report, contact the creditor and the major credit bureau that issued the report to dispute the information.
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