A Social Security number (SSN) is the single most important piece of government-issued identification that a United States citizen has. In fact, your Social Security number and card are issued at birth, unlike with other forms of identification.
Your SSN is the most valuable piece of personal data that identity thieves can get their hands on - especially when they have the number along with your full name and address.
Even just by itself, a valid SSN can be illegally sold online or in person to others who are unable to get one on their own. For this reason, you should know how to protect your Social Security number to prevent it from getting stolen in the first place. However, your SSN could still be stolen or leaked online as the result of a data breach.
With a stolen SSN, your full name and an address, an identity thief can steal property, money or even take out loans in your name. To make matters worse, the police will come looking for you instead of the actual crooks if they commit any crimes using your identity.
As senior manager of Alkami Technology Adam Dolby points out “You can close a credit card if it is compromised but the problem is, you can’t close your SSN.”
If you discover your SSN has been stolen or misused by someone else, there are several steps you will need to take right away to minimize the damage.
What to do if your Social Security number is stolen
Contact one of the three major credit-reporting agencies — Equifax, TransUnion, or Experian — to place a credit freeze or a fraud alert on your credit file.
To speak to Equifax, call its customer care number at 1-888-766-0008 or visit this web page to place a fraud alert. To start an Equifax credit freeze online, you'll have to create an Equifax account, but you can do so without creating an account by calling 1-800-349-9960.
To contact Experian, call 1-888-397-3742 or go here for a fraud alert or here for a credit freeze. For TransUnion, the phone number is 1-800-680-7289; the fraud-alert link is here and the credit-freeze link is here.
A credit freeze can be inconvenient, but it's the better option. With a freeze, no potential lender can access your credit file without your approval. That can be a bother if you plan to move, open a new bank account, buy a car or switch phone carriers, but you can easily "unfreeze" your credit and then freeze it again. The freeze lasts indefinitely.
Thanks to a 2018 law, credit freezes are now free to implement, but you must contact each of the Big Three credit-reporting agencies separately to set them up.
Fraud alerts are easier to place — the agency you place one with will contact the other two — but they aren't as useful. A fraud alert just requests that anyone pulling your credit file contact you first, but they don't actually have to. (Here's more about the difference between a fraud alert and a credit freeze.)
You can renew a fraud alert every year (it's free to do so). Contact the Social Security Administration only to get a replacement card or replacement number (see below).
Tell each of the three agencies that your SSN has been stolen
They'll give you free copies of your current credit reports. Review those reports for unfamiliar accounts and unknown inquiries from companies.
Report the theft of the Social Security number to the IRS at http://www.irs.gov/identity-theft-central
Report the identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission at http://www.identitytheft.gov
You can also call 1-877-IDTHEFT.
File an identity-theft report with your local police
The police report will help clear your records and your name. The report is necessary to have if you want to apply for a new Social Security number.
Keep track of, record, report and close all fraudulent accounts by contacting both the companies holding the accounts and the credit-reporting agencies
This will keep your credit as clean as possible. The only way to get a new SSN from the government is to prove without a doubt that someone has used the old number. Records of fraudulent accounts can provide that evidence.
Report the theft of your Social Security number to the Internet Crime Complaint Center at http://www.ic3.gov/
The report will be distributed to the relevant federal, state and local authorities.
The Federal Trade Commission offers a good resource on what to do in case of identity theft at http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/features/feature-0014-identity-theft.
How to get a new Social Security number
Many stolen Social Security numbers are used simply to gain employment, with no detrimental effect to the legitimate holders of the SSN. But others are used to defraud banks, retailers, the IRS and other government agencies, which could trash your credit.
If several years pass after the theft of your Social Security number, and the problems arising from the theft have not gotten any better, then you may want to apply for a new SSN. But before you take that step, there are several things to consider.
Getting a new Social Security number is not easy
You have to prove that the theft of your SSN has caused you serious hardship in the form of denied home mortgages, problems with law enforcement or the IRS, or bad credit that can't be cleaned up.
A new Social Security number doesn't mean the identity-theft problem will go away
The old number will remain valid; you will have to keep monitoring it for future incidents, and government agencies or businesses will still link you to it.
A new Social Security number will have a completely blank credit history
Getting credit will be difficult for a few years — unless you link the new Social Security number to your old, tainted number.
It's entirely up to the Social Security Administration to decide whether you can get a new number
If the agency doesn't think you need a new one, you won't get one.
If you do decide to get a new Social Security number, the first step is as easy as filling out a standard SSN application form. You'll enter the old number on it. But be prepared to plead your case, and to have ample documentation to prove it.
Don't forget that the old Social Security number never completely goes away, even if it goes dormant. The Social Security Administration never invalidates an SSN once it's been issued.