How Criminals Use Stolen Social Security Numbers
You’ve probably heard of Equifax data breach, a notorious hack that took place in 2017 and affected about 143 million Americans - that’s almost half of the US population at that time. Apart from being one of the biggest recent data breaches, it was also one of the most dangerous.
That’s because a very sensitive kind of personal information was stolen by hackers - Social Security numbers. Once the data was breached, it took the credit bureau nearly 4 months to discover the issue and announce it. During all of that time, consumers were unaware that their SSNs, along with other personal records, were in danger of misuse.
What is a Social Security number?
A Social Security number (SSN) is a nine-digit identifier issued to US citizens and eligible residents. Its primary purpose is to help track individual income and benefits. However, an SSN is also used as a personal identifier in other cases, such as taxation, applying for credit, opening bank accounts, buying houses and vehicles, and more.
It’s relatively easy to make unlawful gains using someone’s SSN, that’s why Social Security number theft is a fairly common offense, and a stolen SSN could be used in various different ways. Let’s have a look at the most popular Social Security number scams.
What can criminals do with a stolen Social Security number?
Many institutions request a relatively small number of personal details to identify a person. That’s risky as criminals can quite easily collect information such as a person’s full name, date of birth, home address, and more, through social media and websites dedicated to searching for people.
If identity thieves can combine your personal information with a stolen Social Security number, they’re able to do some really bad things.
Open bank accounts or get loans
Opening a credit card account or getting a loan is not a complicated process. A fraudster who knows your name, date of birth, address, and Social Security number could simply pose as you when applying for credit. They could use your flawless credit history to secure a loan, persuading a bank that the loan would be paid off in time.
The criminal who accessed money in your name would most likely enjoy a shopping spree, landing you with massive bills to pay. Unfortunately, experienced crooks can open a lot of credit cards quickly. In one case of fraud that took place in Ohio, a criminal attempted to open over 50 bank accounts in the victim’s name.
Get medical care
Healthcare services may be expensive but not for a swindler who uses a stolen identity. With your SSN, a fraudster can get medical treatment and buy prescription drugs in your name.
The consequences of that could quickly become catastrophic. Your medical insurance and benefits could be depleted, so those funds might not be available to you when you need them. You could also receive some hefty bills. Worst of all though, you could end up with messed-up medical records - if you received treatment based on fraudulent details, that you didn’t know about, you could actually get misdiagnosed and treated incorrectly. That could be severely harmful or even deadly.
Get tax refunds
Another way for criminals to make use of a stolen Social Security number is to get a fraudulent tax refund. If they claim the tax refund before you do, the money would go straight to the swindlers’ pockets, while your request gets rejected.
This practice is, unfortunately, a popular one. As of February 23, 2019, the IRS identified 3,529 fraudulent tax returns with approximately $15.8 million claimed during the 2019 tax filing season.
Steal your benefits
Another example of a stolen SSN fraud is using the information to seize unemployment payments and retirement benefits. This fraud is especially hard to identify, as it’s hardly noticeable until you need the respective payments yourself.
Thieves can also target multiple people at the same time. If there’s a company going out of business, they might try their luck to access multiple identities of its former employees. That exact situation occurred in Seattle, where a pair of fraudsters tried to claim over $50,000 in unemployment benefits using stolen identities.
Commit crimes under your name
A law-breaker can use your Social Security number to cover themselves up in all kinds of violations - from speeding to violent crimes. After you get tangled in an illegal history, it’s quite hard to clear your name. It can complicate your relations with law enforcement, potential employers, or even acquaintances who’ve heard rumors about you. You might not even have a chance to explain that you were dragged into the criminal story by a fraudster.
What to do if your SSN is stolen?
Criminals may get access to your Social Security number in various ways. First, they can steal your SSN card. Alternatively, they can swindle the number from you by posing as a government body, a bank, or another seemingly official entity. Finally, the fraudsters could even steal a company’s database, exactly what happened in the Equifax case.
In any particular case, you must act as soon as you learn about your Social Security number being leaked. If you do nothing, the criminals will have more time to harm your identity.
Here are the steps you need to take.
1️⃣Review your Social Security statement
You can do that online at ssa.gov/myaccount. A Social Security statement shows your prospective retirement benefits based on your earnings. If your stated income is much higher than it really is, it may mean that someone is abusing your Social Security number.
2️⃣Follow the recommendations by the Federal Trade Commission
Another website worth visiting is identitytheft.gov. This resource was created by the Federal Trade Commission to help people whose private records were stolen. The website offers recommendations for a variety of scenarios: from a mere exposure of data to a proven identity theft. Using the FTC’s website you can get a formal identity theft report, which may be required by some organizations like banks and the Social Security administration to proceed with your case.
3️⃣Get a free credit report
Once a year, you can get a free credit report from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Therefore, it makes sense to request a report every four months. You can conveniently get your credit reports from annualcreditreport.com. Keep monitoring them for signs of misuse of your Social Security number.
4️⃣Place a fraud alert or a credit freeze
There are two ways to let creditors know you may have been a fraud victim. This will make it significantly harder for the criminals to misuse your SSN.
You can place a fraud alert on your credit report. It is basically a notification for the banks and other companies. If a fraud alert is placed, any institution will need to take additional steps to verify your identity before granting a loan. You can do it for free by notifying one of these three credit bureaus - Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion.
Alternatively, you can apply for a credit freeze. Once that is in place, no one will be able to access your credit reports, get loans, or open new accounts in your name. This protection is strong but can be inconvenient to you as well. While a credit freeze is also free, you’ll need to contact each of the three credit reporting companies to get it set up.
5️⃣Monitor your credit reports
If you order credit monitoring services, you’re instructing a dedicated company to monitor your credit reports and credit score. You’ll be notified of activities and changes that would allow you to quickly notice fraudulent activities. If your SSN was exposed due to a data breach, an affected organization may offer you credit monitoring for free. Be sure to accept this offering.
6️⃣File your taxes early
As we’ve discussed before, criminals may try to file a tax return in your name if they have your Social Security number and other personal information. If you file your taxes and tax returns early, you have a better chance to outrun the fraudsters.
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Be sure to take all possible steps for your Social Security number protection. Don’t carry your card around and don’t tell your number to anybody unless absolutely necessary. Similarly, be attentive to other sensitive records that you have. We have prepared a detailed guide on how to secure your valuable data.
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