How to Keep Your Social Security Number Safe

Quick Answer

To keep your Social Security number safe, take steps like never carrying around documents that display it and being careful about who you share it with.

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Hundreds of millions of Social Security numbers (SSNs) have been issued since the program's inception in 1936. Over the years, the SSN has become widely used as a unique identifier not only for collecting Social Security benefits, but for a variety of other purposes as well. This ubiquity comes at a cost, however, with the widely used number becoming "the lynchpin to identity theft," according to one federal official.

For example, an identity thief who swipes your nine-digit SSN may be able to open new credit card accounts in your name, file a phony tax return to score a tax refund, rent an apartment, buy a car or even steal your Social Security benefits.

Follow these seven tips to help avoid becoming the victim of Social Security fraud.

1. Don't Carry Your Social Security Card

Don't routinely carry your card or other documents that display your SSN, the Social Security Administration says. Instead, keep these documents in a safe place where they're less prone to being lost or stolen.

2. Don't Share Your SSN With Unsolicited Callers

If you receive a phone call from someone asking for your SSN, especially if you don't know them, it could be a scam.

For instance, somebody posing as an employee of the Social Security Administration may contact you because there's supposedly a problem with your account. They might even trick you by spoofing their call to make it seem as though they are using a legitimate number. The agency says it'll typically notify you by mail if there's an issue with your SSN or Social Security account.

Be suspicious if you receive a call about your SSN, as well as a text message, email, letter or social media message. If contact like this raises a red flag, cut off communication with the caller or sender and don't provide your SSN.

3. Shred Unneeded Documents That Include Your SSN

If you don't need to keep and safely store them, shred any documents that display your SSN. These may include tax returns, pay stubs, loan statements and medical bills. Ideally, you should use a micro-cut shredder, which cuts documents into smaller pieces than other shredders do.

4. Don't Use Your SSN as an ID Number

If possible, use an ID number other than your SSN. Some employers and schools, for instance, have replaced the SSN with an employee or student ID number as the primary way to identify someone.

In 2020, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security kicked off the first phase of an effort to develop a "globally unique, meaningless and verifiable" ID number as an alternative to the SSN.

5. Don't Send Your SSN by Email or Text Message

The Social Security Administration cautions against putting your SSN in electronic formats like emails and text messages. Emails and text messages aren't entirely secure, meaning your SSN could wind up in the wrong hands. For instance, a hacker may be able to gain access to your email account and grab your SSN, regardless of whether it's in the body of the email or in an attachment.

The Social Security Number Fraud Prevention Act of 2017 limits the ability of federal agencies to include your SSN in documents or packages sent by regular mail.

6. Create a Social Security Account

Set up a Social Security account online if you don't already have one. Doing so reduces the risk of someone else opening a Social Security account in your name if they managed to get your SSN.

7. Block Access to Your Social Security Record

You can block electronic or telephone access to your Social Security record by calling the Social Security Administration at 800-772-1213.

The agency offers this feature so that no one, not even you, can see or change your personal information that's on file. Once access has been blocked, you can unblock it by contacting the Social Security Administration.

Also, you can lock your SSN by ​​visiting the Department of Homeland Security's myE-Verify website. Using the site's Self Lock feature can prevent someone from using your SSN for employment-related fraud.

Steps to Take if Your Social Security Number Has Been Stolen

What should you do if your SSN has been stolen? Here are five steps to take.

  • File an identity theft report with local police and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Among the types of theft you should report include someone filing a tax return or an application for unemployment or government benefits in your name, or your information being stolen or being part of a data breach.
  • Request a fraud alert. If you suspect your SSN has been swiped but you're not sure that you've been victimized by fraud, you have the right to place a fraud alert on your credit report. A fraud alert asks any business that checks your credit report to take steps to verify your identity before issuing new credit in your name. When you place a fraud alert with one of the three national credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion or Equifax), it automatically takes effect at the two other credit bureaus.
  • Freeze your credit. You also have the right to request a credit freeze, also known as a security freeze. A step beyond a fraud alert, a security freeze limits access to your credit report and helps stop scammers from opening credit cards, renting apartments or securing loans in your name. One downside, however, is that you'll have to either temporarily or permanently lift the freeze before you can submit a legitimate application for credit yourself. You can freeze and "thaw" your credit report whenever you want with each major credit bureau.
  • Reach out to companies where your SSN was used to commit fraud. If you learn that phony accounts (such as credit card and checking accounts) have been set up using your SSN, notify each of these companies that you're a victim of identity theft. The company can then shut down your account to help curb fraudulent activity.
  • Reach out to government agencies where your SSN was used to commit fraud. For instance, you'll need to contact the IRS if your SSN was used to file a fake tax return or the Social Security Administration if your SSN was used to fraudulently apply for benefits.

Securing Your Social Security Number

Keeping your SSN safe is vital in helping prevent identity theft. Anyone who has your SSN might fraudulently apply for a credit card, apartment or a job using your information. And that could cause headaches and financial losses. You can reduce the odds of your SSN being used against you by taking steps such as safeguarding your Social Security card and being careful about who's got your access to your SSN.

If you do become a victim of identity theft, consider placing a free credit freeze or fraud alert on your credit report. In addition, regularly check your credit report from Experian for free so you can spot suspicious activity.