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5 Kinds of ID Theft Using a Social Security Number
Stay informed about the latest identity theft news and stories about what law enforcement and elected officials are doing to protect consumers from becoming victims.
ID Theft Resources Share Article 30 November, 2017 | 3 Minutes
5 Kinds of ID Theft Using a Social Security Number
Alison Grace Johansen
With the Equifax breach still fresh in our minds, many of us are wondering if our finances—let alone our identities—are safe and secure. If you’re one of the 145.5 million potential victims of the 2017 Equifax data breach, the hackers may have the so-called skeleton key to your finances and, ultimately, your identity: your one and only Social Security number.
What exactly can a thief do with your Social Security number? The answer isn’t pretty, especially if they also have access to other personal data, as the Equifax hackers may.
Whether you’ve had your Social Security number stolen or are trying to keep it secure, it’s important to know what criminals can do with it, so you know how to recognize red flags.
One of the identity theft-related crimes most people think of is credit card fraud. However, credit card fraud may be just one of the crimes that can be committed if a criminal assumes your identity with your Social Security number and other personal information.
While stolen credit cards and the like can be cancelled and replaced, it can be difficult to obtain a new Social Security number. The Social Security Administration requires that you prove your identity and provide evidence that someone is misusing your Social Security number and causing you significant continuing harm. In fact, until you sort everything out, the Internal Revenue Service and other government entities may not know if you or the criminal who has stolen your identity is “the real” you.Five Malicious Ways a Thief Can Use Your Social Security NumberFinancial Identity Theft - If a thief uses your personally identifiable information (PII) such as your Social Security number for financial gain, you’re a victim of financial identity theft. The fraudster may fill out false applications for loans, credit cards or bank accounts in your name or withdraw money from your accounts. This can encompass credit card fraud, bank fraud, computer fraud, wire fraud, mail fraud and employment fraud.
One example of the magnitude of a fraudster’s power? A man in New Jersey has been charged with bank fraud and identity theft for stealing over $530,000 from a bank by writing checks drawn from hundreds of bank accounts, created with stolen Social Security numbers, that didn’t contain sufficient funds to cover the checks.Government Identity Theft - Fraudsters may use your personal information in interactions with the government. One example is tax-related identity theft or tax refund fraud, also known as Stolen Identity Refund Fraud (SIRF). SIRF occurs when a thief uses your Social Security number and other personal information to file an income tax return in your name to claim a tax refund—essentially stealing money from the U.S. Treasury.
The U.S. Department of Justice reports that SIRF enforcement has become one of the Tax Division’s highest prosecutorial priorities. The magnitude of this growing problem can be seen in the significant uptick in fraudulent business tax returns, as fraudsters become savvier, according to the AARP.Criminal Identity Theft - Someone who has your Social Security number and is taken in by law enforcement for criminal conduct also could use it as their very own “get out of jail free” card. While this could just be providing your information for a speeding ticket, it could create more challenging problems if someone gives your identity when arrested—leading to an arrest warrant for you and costing you a job when the warrant pops up in a potential employer’s background check.Medical Identity Theft - A thief could give your information in a medical emergency or for other medical care, potentially affecting your healthcare coverage negatively and compromising your safety if there’s misinformation on file when you need medical treatment. If this happens, you may receive a variety of notices:
Bills and collections calls for medical services you didn’t receive
Unfamiliar collections notices on your credit reports
Medicare or other health insurer notices that you’ve reached your plan limit
Denial of coverage because of misinformationUtility Fraud - You may not think of utilities such as phone, water, gas, and cable services when your Social Security number is stolen, but criminals may use your number and other personal information to open utility service agreements or upgrade services on existing accounts. You may not find out about it until an unpaid bill appears on your credit report or you hear from a bill collector.
Of course, the elephant in the room is that a fraudster can sell your Social Security number on the dark web, thereby allowing others to use your identity many times over. This often means your information will be included on lists that other hackers will use in the future.
Once someone has your Social Security number, they can essentially become you. They may be able to collect tax refunds, collect benefits and income, commit crimes, make purchases, set up phone numbers and websites, establish residences, and use health insurance—all in your name. It’s a messy business that’s challenging to clean up.
What can someone do with your Social Security number?
What can someone do with your Social Security number? Learn more about what your SSN does and how to protect it.
What can someone do with your Social Security number?
REVIEWED BY LEXINGTON LAW | DECEMBER 10, 2021
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, act as legal, financial or credit advice. See Lexington Law’s editorial disclosure for more information.
Your Social Security number is one of the most important identifiers you have for financial and legal purposes. Most people born in the United States are issued one at birth, but it’s not usually something you use yourself until you’ve reached adulthood. But what happens if someone gets your Social Security number? Keep reading to find out how your SSN can be stolen and what criminals can do with it once they have it.
What is a Social Security number for?
Your Social Security is a nine-digit number that’s a unique identifier for you for government purposes. It’s usually assigned upon birth in the United States, but if you had an undocumented birth or your parents didn’t ask for a SSN, you may need to request one as an adult.
Your SSN is very important and is required for several things, such as:
Filing taxes Applying for jobs
Opening credit card and bank accounts
Getting a passport
Filing legal documents
Because your SSN is a unique identifier, it’s usually not possible to be assigned another one. There are some exceptions in extreme cases, such as if you’re changing your identity for safety purposes. It’s very difficult to get a new SSN, and the approval process is long.
How can your Social Security number be stolen?
It’s surprisingly easy for hackers and criminals to get your Social Security number. This usually happens either by physically getting the information or through a security breach of some kind online. Below are a few of the ways a person can steal your Social Security number:
Getting documents out of the trash. It’s common for papers such as medical bills or financial statements to have your SSN on them. If you toss these papers in the trash, criminals might actually go through it and then use the information.
Overhearing you say your SSN. You may be asked for your Social Security number when you register at the hospital or when you’re dealing with banks and other financial entities. If someone hears you say your SSN, they can then use it for their own activities.
Obtaining it through a data breach. Even if you take all the necessary precautions to keep your SSN safe, you have to hope that other companies will do the same. Data breaches—such as the 2017 Equifax breach—happen when hackers are able to access companies’ data banks.
Keep in mind that while a lot of paperwork may ask for your SSN, you don’t always have to share it. For example, your children’s school enrollment forms may have a line for your SSN, but this isn’t something they actually need. In any situation, you can ask why the other party needs your SSN and refuse to give it if you’re not comfortable.
5 things someone can do with a stolen Social Security number
So, what can someone do with your Social Security number? They can steal your identity and do all that that entails. Below are four common things criminals do when they steal your SSN.
1. Open new accounts
If someone has your SSN, they can open new accounts in your name. For example, they can open a checking account or set up an account with the local electric company. While some of these places will ask for more identifying information, such as a driver’s license, it’s common to only need a Social Security number and a matching date of birth to open an account.
2. File fraudulent tax returns
Your Social Security number is also used to file your taxes in most cases. Someone who has your SSN can file a fraudulent tax return in your name to be able to claim a refund or stimulus money. You often don’t know that a fraudulent tax return has been filed until you go to file your own. It can take months to straighten things out with the IRS, and this can keep you from being able to access your own refund in the meantime.
3. Obtain medical care
If someone has your SSN, they can use it to get medical care at doctor’s offices, hospitals and clinics. It can be months or even years before you realize this has happened. Many people don’t know until they see a collection notice on their credit report for an account they weren’t aware of or when they go to seek medical care at the same place.
4. Steal your benefits
If you use any kind of state or federal benefits, such as EBT, SNAP or Medicaid, they’re tied to your SSN. That means someone else can also access these benefits if they have your Social Security number. Criminals are known to target unemployment benefits as well, and if you need to file for these benefits yourself after someone else has used your SSN fraudulently, it can take months to go through the process of proving your identity.
5. Commit crimes
While criminals don’t actually use your SSN to commit crimes, they can provide it to law enforcement when they get caught. This could give you a criminal record you aren’t even aware of and can affect everything from getting a job to qualifying for an apartment.
How to know if your Social Security number has been stolen
Got tricked into giving up your Social Security number? Here’s what to do
How to avoid Social Security fraud, and what to do if someone gets hold of your number.
Home Retirement Social Security Credit.com
Credit.com Got tricked into giving up your Social Security number? Here’s what to do
Published: Aug. 29, 2019 at 9:39 a.m. ET
Act fast, and protect yourself from future fraud
There are a lot of ways for someone to get your Social Security number.ISTOCK/GETTY IMAGES
Let’s face it: your Social Security number is probably out there somewhere. This federal identification number is used for so many purposes—from tax forms to credit apps to student information forms—that it exists in myriad places. And while organizations that ask for personally identifying information, including your Social Security number (SSN), do have an obligation to keep it as secure as possible, mistakes and cyberattacks happen. Sometimes, the person who gives up your SSN to a scammer is you.
Find out what to do if you’re a victim of identity fraud, and learn about Social Security number fraud and how to avoid it in the future.
What happens if you accidentally give someone your Social Security number?
No matter how or why it happened, if you give your SSN to someone you suspect might be a scammer—or think that your SSN has been stolen for any other reason—take action quickly. You could become a victim of identity theft. First, check your credit reports to ensure nothing is amiss right now with your accounts. If you find anything, consider working with professionals such as Lexington Law to address errors on your report.
Related: These common scams target seniors—how to avoid them
Next, take actions to protect yourself against fraudulent activity or identity theft in the future. Consider putting a fraud alert on your credit files. This lasts for 90 days and lets potential creditors know to take extra steps to verify your identity when a credit app is processed. It means you’ll have to jump through additional hoops if you apply for credit yourself, but the peace of mind may be worth it.
You can also invest in other identity theft protection products. These range from monitoring services that alert you to any new activity to credit locks that make it impossible for anyone—including you—to open a new account in your name until the lock is lifted.
See: As alleged $46M online-dating scam shows, lonely-hearts are the biggest target for scam artists in America
If you’re worried about someone having your Social Security number because you misplaced your card, then follow the correct channels for reporting the loss and requesting a new card. You’ll still need to follow the steps above, because SSNs don’t work like credit card numbers. The Social Security office doesn’t close your account and issue you a brand-new number if identity theft occurs. They simply send you a new card.
How do I check to see if someone is using my Social Security number?
Unfortunately, the only way to know if someone has your Social Security number is if they put it to use. Identity thieves might use your SSN to get medical care under your name, open accounts in your name, file for a tax refund or steal your government benefits. Checking your credit reports, monitoring your federal and state tax accounts and keeping an eye on all your other accounts is typically the best proactive defense. Once you believe you’re a victim of SSN theft, take action to report it and deal with it immediately.
Can my Social Security number be suspended?
No, the Social Security office doesn’t suspend numbers. Calls that tell you your SSN number may be blocked or suspended for any reason are a scam. This is a common phone scam that involves a person asking you for personal information, including your SSN, so they can work with you to resolve the issue. In some cases, the person asks you to pay a fee to have your SSN reinstated.
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The true result of these scams is that your identity is stolen and used for fraudulent purposes. In cases where you provide a credit card or banking account number to pay the fee, the scammers may clean out your account or run up charges on your card.
Does Social Security ever contact you by phone?
The Social Security Administration confirms that in some special cases, it does contact people by phone to handle customer service matters. The representative may ask you to confirm some personal information so they know they can speak with you. However, the rep also provides a name and phone extension.
Read next: The No. 1 way scam artists fool people into parting with their money
One of the best ways to ensure you are talking to someone with the SSA and not a scammer is simply to tell the individual you will hang up and call back. Ask for the person’s extension and call the SSA customer service phone line at 1-800-772-1213. Dial the extension, and if you get to the same person, the call is legitimate. If not, it could be a Social Security scam.