T-Mobile announced in August that the names, Social Security numbers and other personal information of about 50 million people who did business with the cell phone carrier had been compromised in a data breach.
Earlier, in April, it was the School of Medicine at Stanford University that confirmed hackers had leaked stolen personal data obtained via a compromised file transfer system, part of a bigger breach that impacted other health systems in the U.S.
Another month, another piece of bad news. While we’ve grown accustomed to hearing about hacking, you still might be amazed and appalled by the many ways a scammer can fraudulently use your Social Security number.
Discover some of the awful — but very real — consequences that might happen if your SSN gets stolen, and learn how to prevent or deal with these worst-case scenarios.
Hackers can use your SSN to get credit cards in your name.
“The important thing for people to understand is that once someone has your Social Security number, particularly in combination with your name and address, they can do pretty much anything that requires your SSN,” said Brian Focht, an attorney and head of the Law Offices of Brian C. Focht in Charlotte, North Carolina, who lists cybersecurity and privacy law among his practice areas.
Focht said that fraudulently obtaining credit cards is by far the most common SSN scam that he sees in his practice. It is possible for a hacker to get a credit card with just your name, address and Social Security number. Once the credit cards are in place, fraudsters can run up a lot of debt.
Generally speaking, criminals aim to get the most they can with the least effort, Focht said. In his view, keeping your SSN safe requires two things: understanding and implementing security best practices, and luck.
“The best that anyone can do these days is be suspicious about anyone/anything that asks for personal information,” Focht said. “If it doesn’t seem right, it’s probably not. Beyond that, there’s just a lot that is way out of anyone’s control.”
Pro tip: If you suspect someone has opened a credit card in your name, Focht said your first calls should be to the three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Don’t just contact one — call all three.
They can use your SSN to open a phone account in your name.
It’s easy for criminals to open a phone account in your name if they have your name, address and SSN, Focht said. One of his clients learned that her SSN had been stolen when she received a Verizon Wireless bill. It turned out that someone had opened an account in her name, then purchased several expensive phones, charging them to the account.
“What was particularly irksome in her case was that the accounts were opened using an address the client hadn’t lived at for more than a decade,” Focht said.
Pro tip: Focht said that phone companies usually have fraud departments to deal with stolen services. Immediately let the department know what is going on, and then follow up with a letter. You might need to send a copy of that letter to the credit agencies if the issue shows up on your credit report.
They can use your SSN to claim your tax refund.
In 2020, nearly 170 million people filed tax returns for tax year 2019, including traditional non-filers who submitted information to get their economic impact payments. That year, the Internal Revenue Service issued nearly 126 million refunds, accounting for about 74% of all filers. The average refund was $2,549.
So, imagine the shock if — rather than that long-awaited check — you instead received notice that someone else already filed a return in your name and received your tax refund.
This can happen if a scammer gets your name and SSN and simply files a return in your name. While your best bet is to keep your SSN private, both the IRS and Federal Trade Commission can assist you if this happens.
Pro tip: There are many things you can do to help protect your tax refund. Learn to recognize phishing emails seeking your personal information and calls from scammers posing as your bank, credit card company or the IRS. No bank, taxing authority or responsible business typically asks for your SSN online. Treat any such request as a scam.
They can use your SSN to get a driver’s license in your name.
When asked for a photo identity, you are likely to whip out your driver’s license. It is accepted as proof of who you are, where you live and how old you are. So if an identity thief is able to obtain a driver’s license in your name, it opens many fraudulent doors.
To get a driver’s license, you generally have to pass a written test, a driving test and an eye exam, and provide your name, address and SSN. A hacker might be able to get a driver’s license in your name without you even knowing it.
Pro tip: If you believe that your name and Social Security number were used to obtain a fraudulent driver’s license, immediately contact your state Department of Motor Vehicles. Warning signs could be traffic tickets issued in states you have never visited or warrants for your arrest you know nothing about.
They can use your SSN to open a bank account in your name.
If you think back to when you opened your first bank account, you’ll remember that the bank didn’t require much information other than your name, address and SSN. That means that anyone with your SSN can easily open a bank account in your name, especially if the identity thief already obtained a driver’s license in your name.
Why would someone want to open a bank account in your name? You can be sure it is not to add to your savings. The hacker could use it as a landing spot for transfers from your legitimate bank account.
Pro tip: The minute you suspect your SSN has been stolen, call the fraud departments of the three credit reporting agencies and place a fraud alert on your file. This tells creditors to call you before they open any new accounts in your name.
It’s also critical to keep on top of your money. Using an online banking app makes it easier to monitor your account.
They can use your SSN to drain your existing bank accounts.
Identity hackers also can use your stolen SSN to dip into any of your existing bank accounts. Armed with that knowledge, they simply can transfer money.
If they hacked your SSN, they might have obtained your passwords and the answers to secret security questions, too, such as your mother’s maiden name. The drain on your accounts might be gradual — or you might wake up to find your entire savings gone. Hackers also have begun to use apps such as Zelle to transfer money illegally.
Pro tip: It’s important to protect yourself from hackers and scammers. Monitor your bank account on a daily basis to identify the slightest unfamiliar withdrawal or other changes to the account. The earlier you catch the fraud, the easier it will be to deal with it.
They can use your SSN to claim your Social Security check.
Although you are regularly asked to use your SSN for identification, its primary purpose is linked to your Social Security benefits. The government keeps track of your earnings and your Social Security tax payments with your SSN, and you need it in order to claim Social Security retirement or disability benefits.
For example, if you are eligible for Social Security retirement benefits but have opted to wait until you reach full retirement age, a hacker with your SSN could apply for those benefits in your name. Because Social Security benefits are usually deposited directly into a bank account, you might not even discover this until you try to apply for benefits years down the road.
Pro tip: It’s a good idea to check your Social Security account once or twice a year to make sure everything looks as it should. If you believe that a scammer is using your SSN to collect your Social Security benefits, call the Social Security Fraud Hotline at 800-269-0271.
They can use your SSN to get a loan in your name.
Steven J.J. Weisman, author of “Identity Theft Alert: 10 Rules You Must Follow to Protect Yourself from America’s #1 Crime,” said that one of the worst things an identity thief can do with your Social Security number is to obtain a loan in your name. To do this, the hacker would first need to use your SSN to access your credit reports. Then, using the data, an identity thief could get a loan in your name — and never pay it back.
This is not only bad for your credit, Weisman said, but it can also affect your ability to get a job, rent an apartment, get insurance or obtain a loan. All of these things often depend on having a good credit report.
If this type of fraud happens to you, you need to contact the lender involved, the police and the FTC. The issue can be difficult and time-consuming to fix.
Pro tip: Weisman said it’s easier to safeguard your SSN than it is to repair ruined credit after someone has stolen it.
“You should not carry your Social Security number in your wallet or purse,” he said. “You should not provide it as an identifying number to everyone who asks for it. Many places ask for it but don’t need it by law.”
The lesson here: Always ask if your SSN is actually needed.
They can use your SSN to receive medical treatment under your insurance.
Medical records typically lay out a patient’s complete identity, according to CNBC — which means that if there’s a breach affecting healthcare systems, hackers can do a lot with what they’ve stolen. That includes accessing your medical insurance.
Weisman said scammers can incur large medical bills in your name that might not be covered by your medical insurance. In that case, you’ll be hounded by collection companies for payment. This will definitely hurt your credit score.
Pro tip: Weisman said you need to stay on top of your medical records. “Just as you should regularly check your credit report, you also should regularly check your medical records to make sure that there are not mistakes,” he said.
Today, most medical providers have online records but not all do. Ask your provider how best to review your records.
They can use your SSN to identify themselves when picked up for criminal activity.
In some types of SSN fraud, you, the victim, can get arrested and thrown in jail. This could happen if the SSN thief commits a crime and uses your name and SSN to identify himself when apprehended. Weisman said this scenario becomes even worse when the hacker posts bail and then doesn’t show up for the hearing.
“In that event, criminal charges will be on record against the identity theft victim (you), who will have difficulty straightening this out,” said Weisman, an attorney who includes identity theft as part of his practice.
Pro tip: If you do become a victim of this type of fraud, Weisman said you should contact the credit reporting agencies and demand they remove the false information from your credit report. You also should file a criminal complaint for identity theft with the local police so that it is a matter of record.
Find Out More: How To Fix a Mistake on Your Credit Report
They can use your SSN to pay for their utilities.
For a customer to use their services, it’s pretty standard for utility companies to ask for your Social Security number as a way to check your credit history, according to the FTC. But this just means there’s another opportunity for a hacker to get your personal information and unfairly wreak havoc on your finances. Once your SSN lands in the hands of hackers, they can freely open utility services under your name for their personal use. You might not see any signs of this until you receive a notice for a past due payment.
Pro tip: Before you mindlessly give out your SSN, take a moment to ask about the company’s security policies and what measures are in place to protect you and your SSN.
They can sell your identity to launch spam attacks.
Although it might seem as if credit cards and loans are the endgame for most hackers who steal your SSN, that’s not always the case. Hackers also use your SSN to access information about you to sell.
According to an NPR report, some documents can sell for big money — and there was a big leap in price from 2020 to 2021. Details about credit cards with account balances of up to $1,000 can fetch the hacker $150, up from $12 a year ago. The fee goes up to $240 for information about accounts with balances as high as $5,000. Stolen online banking logos for accounts with a minimum balance of at least $2,000 go for $120.
Pro tip: Your SSN is precious, so try to find an alternative before opting to give it out. Alternates could include your driver’s license or an account number.
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Jami Farkas contributed to the reporting for this article.