A couple of years ago, my Social Security number and personal information was stolen and a fraudulent tax return was filed in my name, causing a cascade of problems that took months to clear up. Fortunately, the fraudsters never were able to access any money belonging to me, and the whole thing was more of a terrible inconvenience than anything else. However, since then, I have been very careful about protecting that number!
How Are Social Security Numbers Stolen?
Social Security numbers can be stolen in a variety of ways:
- Someone might rummage through your discarded mail and papers
- Your wallet or personal papers might be stolen
- Personal files or records of yours stored outside your home might be compromised
- You might accidentally provide this info to a fraudulent website or person
- Your information might be intercepted on the Internet by hackers
Although it’s not possible to completely protect ourselves against all of these possibilities, there are steps we can take.
Ways to Protect the Number
–Just say “no”
Typically, we legally have to provide our Social Security number to employers, banks, and a few other entities, such as driver’s license bureaus and public assistance agencies. However, many other parties, such as landlords, medical offices, schools and universities, utility companies, and so on, also may ask for Social Security numbers—but they don’t have a legal right to them.
Ask if you can give your driver’s license number instead. (Medical offices may be willing to use an insurance card number.) This may go any number of ways. There may be no problem whatsoever; you may need to speak with someone “higher up”; or in some cases, you may be denied service or your service may be delayed.
–Never carry your Social Security card or number in your wallet or on your person
This one is pretty obvious, but I was surprised to see someone I know carrying theirs around!
–Shred sensitive mail and documents
It doesn’t take more than a moment to put bills and other sensitive papers through an inexpensive home paper shredder.
–Consider using an Identity Protection PIN when filing taxes, where possible.
An IRS IP PIN is a unique number assigned to a taxpayer by the government that allows the IRS to ensure that the person filing the return really is who they say they are. As an identity theft victim, I now must file with an IP PIN every year, which I am more than happy to do!
The interesting news is that the IRS is now offering this protection to ALL citizens of Florida, Georgia, and the District of Columbia, three areas where identity theft is the highest. Other taxpayers nationwide may also receive an opt-in invite to get an IP PIN. This is a very useful service for anyone who is eligible and looking to protect their Social Security number, but it’s important to remember that once you start using one, you are committing to continue.
–If earning self-employment income, obtain an EIN
If you are an in business for yourself as an independent contractor, your clients may need to ask for your Social Security number so they can issue you a 1099. This exposes your Social Security number to the world. In order to avoid this issue you can request an EIN (Employer Identification Number) free from the IRS.
–Use strong and unique passwords for sites storing your SSN
You should always use strong passwords, but this is particularly important for any website which has access to your SSN (banks, employer payroll systems, tax preparers).
–Check credit scores annually
Everyone should do this anyway, but this is just another reason why. Go to annualcreditreport.com to get a free annual report.
If a Social Security Number Has Been Stolen
In case of Social Security number theft, the affected party should go to http://www.identitytheft.gov and report the problem. Contact the credit bureaus (Equifax, Transunion, and Experian) as well, and place a fraud alert (once of you place one with one, it will be placed with the other two). The IRS provides details on how to handle this situation.
Although it may seem cumbersome protecting this crucial number, it’s worth the trouble. Taking the time to safeguard it is crucial.