Identity theft is a serious problem in the US. In 2017 alone, more than 16.7 million people were affected. Most of the time, criminals steal your identity by having access to your Social Security number. What’s worse: you might not even realize what’s happening until it’s too late.
There are several ways hackers can get your Social Security number, and some are totally out of your control (think Equifax hack). Here are some terrible ways that a stolen Social Security number can be used:
File a fake tax return
One way that the bad guys can use your Social Security number is to file a fake tax return. Why would they do this? To get your refund, of course. If you file your taxes and your return is rejected, it’s possible that a criminal has beat you to it.
Steal your benefits
A criminal who has access to your SSN can also steal your benefits. These include your Social Security retirement benefits and unemployment payments.
Criminals also use stolen Social Security numbers to commit crimes. Imagine that a criminal gets caught. They certainly aren’t going to give their personal information to the cops. Instead, they give your stolen SSN, instead. Then, guess who is going to get a police record and/or warrants?
Steal medical information
It’s easy for thieves to utilize your stolen SSN to use your medical insurance. Not only can they get medication and medical procedures, their medical information could get mixed up with your own. This, of course, is potentially deadly.
Open bank/credit card accounts
Criminals can also open a credit card or bank account in your name by using your SSN. You will then get the bills while they get to enjoy spending your hard-earned money.
Signs your Social Security number has been stolen
One of the first signs that your Social Security number has been stolen is a suspicious item on your credit report. Alternatively, you may get calls from bill collectors, denied a tax refund, or law enforcement might physically knock on your door.
How to protect yourself
Credit checks: It’s important to check your report. Look for any credit inquiries from companies you don’t recognize and keep an eye out for inaccurate information such as the wrong birthday or address. How often should you check it? Probably three to four times a year to ensure nothing is amiss. If you do find something strange, contact the three credit reporting agencies immediately and freeze your credit. If you use a free app like Credit Karma, you can make the report directly from within the application.
Credit freeze: Go to all four credit bureaus and search for “credit freeze.” Then, go through the process. This will prevent someone with your SSN from opening any new accounts.
Tax identity theft: Go to IRS.gov and download and fill out Form 14039 to make an official note that you are a victim of identity theft. This will help prevent someone from filing a fake tax return.
Protect your devices: Deploying Antivirus, firewall, software updates, password management, and using a VPN will ward off most attacks. Use Hotspot Shield VPN whenever connected to free, unsecured WiFi like at a coffee shop, airport, or hotel to prevent hackers from stealing your sensitive data.