Your Social Security number (SSN) is more than a nine-digit code; it's an important part of your legal identity. Issued by the U.S. government, your SSN is used to track your lifetime earnings and eligibility for financial benefits in retirement. It's also used for identification purposes by employers, financial institutions and service providers nationwide.
Unfortunately, SSNs are particularly appealing to identity thieves, who can use the numbers along with other forms of identifiable information to claim their victims' Social Security benefits, open new bank accounts and credit cards, and commit tax fraud or other crimes. So, how do you know if your SSN is at risk, and what can you do to prevent it? Here are a few warning signs of Social Security fraud to look out for, along with tips to help you avoid becoming a victim.
- You start to receive mail, bills, or collection notices for services or accounts that you didn't open
With your SSN, criminals can open new financial accounts, apply for credit cards, and even request a loan or mortgage. Keep a close eye on your mail for bills from creditors or services that you never used. If you start to receive unfamiliar bills, debt collection calls, or denials for loan applications, you may be a victim of identity theft. You should also be aware of any missing bills or statements that you normally receive in the mail. Criminals may have used your personally identifiable information to change your address with the U.S. Postal Service and commit fraud.
- You discover that someone else has filed taxes in your name
Tax-return identity theft occurs when someone uses your Social Security number to file a fraudulent tax return in your name and collect your tax return. You may not be aware of the theft until you go to file taxes yourself and see that another return has already been filed using your SSN. To avoid this, try to file your income taxes early in the season, before a criminal can file taxes in your name. To report tax identity theft, file a report with the Federal Trade Commission at IdentityTheft.gov.
- You receive mail or contact for someone in your family who has passed away.
According to a recent government audit, about 6.5 million active US. Social Security numbers are in circulation for individuals appearing to be at least 112 years old. The problem is, at the time of the audit, there were less than 40 people over the age of 112 in the world according to the Gerontology Research Group. This type of Social Security fraud, sometimes called “ghosting," occurs when someone gains access to a deceased individual's Social Security number and uses it to steal their benefit checks, open new accounts, and more. To prevent identity theft from happening to a deceased loved one, be sure to notify the Social Security Administration to cancel their benefits and always keep their important documents in a safe place.
- You receive a notice that your information was compromised by a data breach
In today's digital world, data breaches are more common than ever before. Data breaches occur when consumers' personally identifiable information, such as their SSN, is unintentionally released or stolen by cybercriminals. Companies large and small can be affected by data breaches. Especially during tax season, tax professionals are increasingly becoming targeted by cybercriminals looking to access taxpayers' data.
If you find out that your information has been compromised by a data breach, notify your bank or credit union immediately to secure your accounts. You should also contact the three major credit bureaus to place a fraud alert on your name. You may also consider freezing your credit, which will prevent anyone from running a credit report on you or opening an account in your name without your explicit authorization.
- You notice unusual activity or discrepancies on your credit reports or account statements
If a criminal has access to your SSN, you may discover evidence of their fraudulent activity in your bank or credit union accounts or credit card statements. Monitor your accounts carefully for any unusual charges and notify your financial institutions immediately if you notice anything suspicious. You should also check your credit report annually for any errors or discrepancies. Get a free copy of your credit report every 12 months by going to AnnualCreditReport.com.
How to protect your Social Security number
Use these helpful tips to safeguard your SSN from fraud:
- Store your Social Security card in a safe place at home or in a safe-deposit box; don't carry it in your wallet or purse.
- Only provide your SSN to others when absolutely necessary. Don't give it out online or over email.
- Shred any unneeded documents or mail that include your SSN before throwing them away.
- Beware of unsolicited phone calls and email messages from scammers who pose as legitimate sources, such as the IRS, to request your SSN or other personally identifiable information. If you are unsure, hang up and call the organization at a verified phone number to ask if they contacted you.
- Monitor your accounts regularly and check your credit reports annually for any suspicious activity.
Fraud – including Social Security fraud – can happen to anyone. While you can't always control the threat of having your Social Security number compromised, you can take steps to protect and monitor your information. That's why Wright-Patt Credit Union is here to help you protect your personal and financial information and avoid becoming a victim of fraud. We have the tips, tools, and resources you need to keep your money and information safe. For more fraud prevention tips, visit WPCU.coop/StopFraud.