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 Number
- Financial 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 misinformation
- Utility 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.
If you’ve already lost your Social Security card or suspect someone is using your Social Security number, there are important steps you need to take right way. But the best way to keep your identity safe is to get started from the get-go, before it’s stolen. A great place to start is by reading the Social Security Administration brochure on Social Security number protection.
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