What can someone do with a stolen Social Security number?

Tips & tricks
11 mins
Social Security card in the shadows.

For Americans and also some non-Americans, a Social Security number is their de facto identification number within the U.S. It has become extremely important that people keep their SSN to themselves, only ever sharing it with government agencies who need it for identification purposes. That’s because if fallen into the wrong hands, a social security number could be used in all manner of identity fraud.

What is a Social Security number?

A Social Security number is a unique nine-digit identification number assigned to individuals in the United States by the Social Security Administration. It serves as a primary identifier for tracking individuals’ earnings and benefits throughout their lives.

The original purpose of a Social Security number is to administer the Social Security program, which provides retirement, disability, and survivor benefits to eligible individuals. It is also used for other government programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid, as well as for tax purposes.

A Social Security number is often needed for obtaining employment, opening bank accounts, applying for credit or loans, and accessing government services. A paper card bearing the number is issued to individuals and serves as proof of their SSN.

What can you do with a social security number?

People living in the U.S. are asked to provide their social security number for various reasons that are usually financial in nature but also purely as identification. Here are some examples:

  • Employment: When you start a new job, you typically need to provide your SSN to your employer for tax and wage reporting purposes.
  • Government benefits: Your SSN is used to determine eligibility and administer various government benefits, such as Social Security retirement benefits, disability benefits, and survivor benefits.
  • Tax filing: Your SSN is used to file income tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and to track your tax obligations and refunds.
  • Financial accounts: Banks and financial institutions may require your SSN when opening new accounts, such as checking or savings accounts, credit cards, loans, or mortgages.
  • Credit applications: Lenders and credit agencies may request your SSN when you apply for credit, such as loans, credit cards, or financing for major purchases.
  • Education: Your SSN may be used by educational institutions for administrative purposes, such as enrollment, financial aid, and student loan applications.
  • Healthcare: Healthcare providers, insurance companies, and government healthcare programs like Medicare may use your SSN for identification and billing purposes.
  • Driver identification: You might need to present your social security card when obtaining a driver’s license to prove who you are.

How does Social Security theft happen?

Here are a few possible ways someone could steal your Social Security number to be aware of. Understanding these methods will help you avoid becoming a victim. 

Phishing attacks

Phishing is when someone tricks you into thinking they are someone you could trust, as a way to persuade you to divulge personal information that’s useful to them. An attacker could send you an email or message that appears to be from a legitimate organization, such as a government agency, financial institution, or trusted service provider. They might then trick you into filling out a fake form online that asks for your social security number.

Stolen wallets containing Social Security cards

You don’t need your Social Security card in daily life, so it is not recommended to carry it around. Obviously, the risk is that you’ll have it stolen. Keep it in a safe place at home and only take it out when someone like a bank requests to see it. 

Mail stolen from the trash

Thankfully, the risk of mail containing your Social Security number is decreasing, due to laws restricting the inclusion of it on any document or package sent by physical mail, unless required for specific reasons. However, those specific reasons might apply to you (for instance, where there is no other way to prove your identity), and some mail senders might not follow the law. Be sure to shred your mail rather than throwing it directly into the trash.

Data breaches

If an organization keeps your Social Security number in a database that’s not properly secured, an attacker could potentially steal it in a data breach. A data breach could be achieved with advanced hacking skills, or the attacker could use social engineering, deceiving an employee to reveal passwords and other ways to access the data.

Unscrupulous employees

Workers in companies or agencies that have access to Social Security numbers could record this information for sale.

More often than not, stolen Social Security numbers end up sold on the dark web—for not even that much money. We’re talking single-digit dollars.

Read more: How much is your data worth on the dark web?

What can someone do with your Social Security number?

So what exactly are the dangers of having your Social Security number stolen? In many cases, more than a Social Security number is needed, but it’s still a massive hassle and harm for victims if any of the following happen to them.

File a fraudulent tax return

Fake tax returns are a major issue, with the IRS flagging more than 1 million tax returns for potential identity theft in 2023’s tax season. Scammers use your information, including your Social Security number, to file a tax return as you early in the season and wait for the refund to arrive.

Steal your government benefits

Someone could use your Social Security number to file unemployment claims and collect the benefits, or access your existing unemployment account to change the payment information, whether it’s the bank account number or the mailing address.

Obtain credit cards or loans in your name

Someone pretending to be you could get a credit card or loan, with the bills going to the real you while they go on a spending spree. When someone applies for a credit card, for instance, the issuer will ask for a Social Security number, along with other personal information like your name, address, and date of birth. A government-issued photo ID is usually needed, so the impersonator might have bought it on the dark web bundled with your SSN.

Open a bank account in your name

Similar to getting a credit card, an identity thief could use your SSN and other personal information and ID to open a bank account. They may use it to deposit illegal funds or make big withdrawals that you’ll be held responsible for. This could all impact your credit score.

Get medical care using your benefits

While care providers like hospitals and clinics don’t need your social security number, it might help a fraudster access your medical insurance to get some of their bills (incurred while impersonating you) paid for. Moreover, their activities could create incorrect medical records for you, leading to problems in your future medical care. 

Withdraw money from your bank account

This is everyone’s financial nightmare. While banks require someone to provide lots of information to prove their identity, like one-time codes sent to their phone, for instance, a social security number does get a fraudster that much closer to being able to control the money in your account.

Get a fraudulent driver’s license

In order to issue you a driver’s license, the DMV usually requires proof of legal name and date of birth (like a passport), proof that you’re in the country legally, and proof of address. The department also needs your social security number but this can be proven electronically (the physical card is not needed). So a fraudster who has all of the above could get a driver’s license in your name. Any fines or incidents could then end up pinned on you.

Open a phone account

When buying a mobile phone or phone plan, the customer could be asked to provide a Social Security number. The alternative could be paying a deposit. So for the impersonator getting a phone under your name, not having to pay anything is ideal.

Saying they’re you if they get caught committing a crime

An identity thief could claim they are you if they get caught for a misdemeanor or traffic violation, or even when getting arrested. There are also cases where a crime is committed under someone else’s identity, leading to the arrest of the identity theft victim.

How to check if your Social Security number has been stolen

Whether you suspect something is up or just want to stay vigilant, there are ways to examine whether there have been signs of your Social Security number being used by someone else.

Keep an eye on your accounts

Easier said than done, but it’s always a good idea to monitor your financial accounts, insurance claims, utilities, etc., to make sure all activities are ones you’ve authorized. Of course, suspicious activity doesn’t necessarily mean your Social Security number has been used. But it would alert you to a problem, whether it’s just an error or someone posing as you.

Review your credit reports

You are entitled to a free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) once a year. You can request your reports online at AnnualCreditReport.com, which is the official website authorized by the U.S. government. Check that your contact details, credit accounts, payment history, inquiries by lenders or creditors, and public records (bankruptcies, tax liens, civil judgments) are as expected.

Set up and check your mySocial Security account

mySocial Security is an online portal provided by the Social Security Administration (SSA) that allows users to monitor their Social Security benefits. If you have an account, check it from time to time to make sure your earnings history and contact information are correct. By the way, organizations like AARP suggest setting up an account to prevent a scammer from doing so in your name. 

Warning signs that your Social Security number has been stolen

While the following are all signs that someone might be using your identity, you have to also make sure any unexpected notices or letters are genuine and not themselves part of a scam to get your personal information.

  • Anything incorrect on your credit reports
  • Letters or calls from creditors when you don’t owe money
  • A change-of-address notification from the post office, when you did not request any such change
  • Statements for accounts you didn’t open
  • Tax notifications that don’t seem right
  • A company verifying your eligibility to work when you haven’t applied for a job
  • Even getting arrested for a crime you did not commit

What to do if your Social Security number is being used for identity theft

If you are fairly sure someone has your Social Security number and is using it for fraudulent activity, the U.S. government has a comprehensive list of steps to take. Which steps you take will depend on what your identity has been used for. Here are a few of the main ones to follow:

1. Report the theft to identitytheft.gov

This site belonging to the Federal Trade Commission is the federal government’s one-stop resource for identity theft victims. Once you describe what happened, it will take you through the next steps you should take. It provides streamlined checklists and sample letters to guide you through the recovery process. 

2. Contact bank and credit card companies

Contact their customer service or fraud department through the appropriate channels, such as their dedicated fraud hotline or email address. Depending on the severity of the identity theft, your bank may recommend freezing or closing the affected accounts to prevent further fraudulent activity.

3. Freeze your credit reports

Contact the three credit reporting agencies and ask them to place fraud alerts and a credit freeze on your accounts. Examine your credit reports to look for discrepancies. 

4. File a police report

Tell the police someone stole your identity. Make sure you ask for a copy of the police report. It might be helpful when you report the issue to other agencies or companies.

5. Close any new accounts opened in your name

If you’ve found any new accounts opened in your name listed in your credit report, call up each company to explain that someone stole your identity and request that it be closed. These could range from bank accounts to utilities and student loan accounts.

Can someone access your bank account with your Social Security number?

It’s unlikely they could access your account with your Social Security number alone. Banks usually verify identities using multiple pieces of information, such as previous address, mother’s maiden name, etc. In person, a bank might require your ID and use biometrics (like fingerprinting or facial recognition). But a Social Security number is certainly one of those items and can help a thief gain access.

Can you change your Social Security number if it’s been stolen?

It is possible to change your Social Security number under limited circumstances, and that includes identity theft, when the victim has attempted to fix problems resulting from the misuse but continues to be disadvantaged by using the original number.

Is it safe to give someone your Social Security number?

It is not safe to give your Social Security number to anyone who doesn’t absolutely need it. Entities that commonly need your number include the Social Security Administration; the Department of Motor Vehicles for getting a driver’s license; your employer for tax purposes; financial institutions like banks; the Internal Revenue Service for tax matters; universities; insurance providers.

However, there is no law prohibiting a company or organization from asking you for your Social Security number. You could refuse to provide it, but they could also refuse you service.

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Vanessa is an editor of the blog.