Following the major security breach at Equifax, many Americans are more worried than ever about their Social Security numbers being used to commit identity theft. Over 143 million Americans have potentially had their sensitive personal information exposed, and this is just one of dozens of major cyber-security incidents in recent years.
In addition to a breach, your Social Security number could also be stolen from documents in your mailbox, your trash can or by someone fraudulently posing as a representative of a trusted institution. If you believe that your Social Security number has been stolen, here are three things you can do to protect yourself:
Report the identity theft to the responsible government agencies.
The Social Security Administration directs you the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) website IdentityTheft.gov. You can also file a police report with your local jurisdiction. While your city or county may not be able to investigate this crime, having a police report can be an essential document to help you to recover from identity theft.
Request a credit freeze with each of the three major consumer credit bureaus.
A credit freeze will not affect your credit scores, but it will prevent your credit report from being accessed by lenders and used to do many things including opening new accounts, renting apartments, or applying for loans.
If you need to do any of these things, then you'll have to temporarily suspend your credit freeze. You can also request an extended fraud alert from the consumer credit bureaus (if you have filed a police report), which lasts for seven years.
Third, contact the fraud department of any company where you suspect a fraudulent use of your Social Security number has occurred.
Notify them that you've been the victim of identity theft, and follow that company's guidance on changing change all of your login and password information.
Ultimately, you may choose to request a new Social Security number from the Social Security Administration, but this isn't as easy as it sounds. You will have to prove that your Social Security number has been used to commit identity theft, that you've suffered harm, and that you've done everything possible to catch the thief. Furthermore, your old Social Security Number will still be valid, and you cannot apply for a new Social Security number just to clear off bad credit or mistakes on your credit report.
Trust, but Verify
The Equifax breach has potentially exposed millions of people's Social Security numbers, but that doesn't mean you are in immediate danger of having your ID stolen and used to commit fraud. If you think that your Social Security number may have been compromised, but have no indication that it's been used to commit fraud, you may be better served by utilizing free credit monitoring or identity theft protection products, rather than taking more extreme measures.
For example, the company responsible for a data breach will typically offer some form of free credit monitoring to those who are affected. In addition, the Discover card now offers its customers a free monitoring service that notifies you if your Social Security number appears on websites that criminals use to buy and sell personal information.
You can also order a free copy of your credit reports from each of the three major consumer credit bureaus every 12 months using AnnualCreditReport.com. Another option is to request an initial fraud alert from the three major consumer credit bureaus, which will protect your credit from unverified access for 90 days.
To see if your Social Security number is being used by someone else for employment purposes, review your Social Security Statement at www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount to look for suspicious activity. Finally, you'll want to use additional scrutiny by regularly checking your bank and credit card accounts online.
When your Social Security number has been stolen, it's important to distinguish between potential problems and actual fraud. By knowing all of the available steps that you can take to combat identity theft, you can take the right actions to protect yourself.
Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer or other company, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. All information, including rates and fees, are accurate as of the date of publication.
This article was originally published on September 22, 2017, and has been updated.