It happens all the time to even the most careful Americans, and yet so many of us don’t know what to do should it happen to us. We’re talking about having your Social Security number stolen. Identity thieves snatch these precious digits through a variety of ways, including by hacking us online or scamming us by posing as a legit agency such as the IRS or Social Security Administration.
Once they obtain this most sensitive information, criminals can sell it on the dark web or use it to open a new credit card among other benefits. Though this happens often (the Federal Trade Commission estimates that some 9 million Americans are victims of identity theft on a yearly basis), dealing with it is a headache. It’s important to stay calm and go about the situation promptly and with diligence.
To clarify and streamline the process of what to do if your Social Security number is stolen, GOBankingRates consulted with personal finance experts. Here’s what we learned you should do.
Alert Any of the 3 Major Credit-Reporting Agencies
“It is critical to act swiftly and alert either Equifax, TransUnion or Experian,” said David Clark, lawyer and partner at The Clark Law Office. “Doing so significantly limits the perpetrator’s use of your SSN, giving you enough time to settle the issue legally.”
Note that this fraud alert must be renewed every 90 days until it’s established that the theft is resolved.
Run Credit Reports
“After realizing your SSN has been stolen, run your three credit reports from Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion,” said Dr. Chris Pierson, CEO of the cybersecurity solutions firm BlackCloak. “You can do this for free and do not need to pay or join any subscription service under a prior federal law. Once you do that, review each for any issues and immediately dispute any credit cards or accounts that are not yours.”
You can get the three credit reports for free here.
Request a Fraud Alert or Credit Freeze
“Fraudsters may want to use your identity to scam others. They may want to make purchases under your name, rent a car or an apartment, open a new credit card or apply for a loan,” said Francis Locknear, founder of The Cost Guys. “This is why it’s ideal to request a credit freeze if somebody has stolen your social security number. A credit freeze will restrict access to your credit report.”
You will need to freeze your credit with all three credit bureaus: TransUnion, Equifax and Experian.
“If somebody has your SSN but doesn’t have any proof of the incident, you can still prevent the fraudster from using your identity,” Locknear said. “You can have a fraud alert placed. It will not restrict access to your credit report, but it will prevent anyone from using your information without verifying your identity first.”
Report the Theft to the IRS
“This next step is crucial as access to your SSN provides the thief means to file tax returns in your name and collect your tax refund,” Clark said. “The fact of the matter is that, unlike credit card accounts, stolen SSNs can’t be closed so your only course of action is to report the incident to the IRS. Doing so will help absolve your name from any possible tax fraud committed using your stolen SSN within the duration of the issue.”
You should specifically file a Form 14039 Identity Theft Affidavit with the IRS to notify them of the SSN theft, Pierson specified.
File an Identity Theft Report
“A stolen valid SSN carrying the bearer’s name and address is valued at a high price and most likely sold to undocumented workers or people trying to hide their identities,” Clark said. “Ensuring there is a police record affirming you are not in use of your SSN at the time of a crime involving your identity will help clear your records and your name. This is also a prerequisite to applying for a new SSN.”
Check Your Banking Relationships
”You will also want to check your major banking relationships because a stolen SSN could be just the beginning of a larger identity theft scheme aimed at your financial accounts,” Pierson said. “At a minimum, be sure to change your password and access to each of your bank accounts. Make sure your financial accounts also have dual-factor authentication turned on so that no one else can gain access to the account.”
Watch for Unusual Activity
“Criminals typically use SSN theft as the starting point for financial theft, insurance and tax refund scams, so you need to go down the list and contact all of those organizations to make sure your account information (especially your contact information) has not been changed, to look for any unusual activity and to add any additional protections you can to these accounts,” Pierson said. “These should include (in addition to your banking) your email, health insurance, and any local, state or federal accounts you might have. You need to talk to each of those organizations to find out what additional anti-fraud protections can be added to your account.”
Up the Security With Your Mobile Carrier
“Last, but not least: Call your mobile carrier and increase the security on your mobile account,” Pierson said. “Most of the carriers will allow you to add a PIN to the account which will prevent an impostor from trying to gain control of your account. This is extremely important for you to do because ‘SIM swapping’ is very common for people who have been the victims of identity theft.”
Pierson explained that SIM swapping is when a criminal is able to trick the mobile carrier into switching out the SIM card associated with your phone number, which effectively gives the criminal control over that phone number.
“Typically, they do this in order to steal your dual-factor authentication codes for a bank account or some other important account,” Pierson said. “However, SIM swapping also allows the criminal to receive all your calls and text messages and to impersonate you in making calls or texts to others.”
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