You probably already realize that keeping your social security number secure is really important. But have you ever thought about why it’s so important?
Why Do We Need Social Security Numbers Anyway?
To get a true understanding of why it’s so important to make sure that your “social” never falls into the wrong hands, let’s start from the beginning. A social security number is a nine digit number issued by the government to all US citizens, with some rare exceptions granted for certain religious groups who opt out of the identification system, such as the Amish. These numbers were first issued in the 1930s to track accounts in the newly formed New Deal Social Security program and were never supposed to be used as a primary way of identifying oneself.
But since almost every American citizen holds a social security number, it has since become the de facto way of identifying people. It’s how the IRS keeps track of individuals and you need one to obtain a passport, open any kind of financial service, get a driver’s license or to apply for insurance. And for the most part, the requesting parties use your social as an easy way to ID their customers, not because they actually need it.
What this means is that all these businesses and organizations have people’s most sensitive data stored on their servers even though in the vast majority of cases it’s totally unnecessary. If (and more like when) these places get hacked, SSNs are the very first thing hackers go after. Once a hacker has your social, he or she can commit all kinds of identity fraud or sell it to another hacker on the dark web.
The worst part? Sorting out identity theft is terribly complex and in some cases, the victim may spend the rest of his or her life dealing with the consequences. Below are just some of the things hackers can do once they have your social.
What an Attacker Can do With a Stolen SSN
- Open Credit Cards in Your Name – To open almost any credit card account, all you need is a SSN, name and address. After stealing your SSN, getting your name and address is a relative cinch. Together, these three pieces of information in the wrong hands are incredibly damaging.
- Get Your Tax Return – You may be eagerly awaiting your tax return money, but as long as an attacker has your SSN name and birthdate, he or she can file a tax return in your name. Goodbye money, and more importantly, goodbye security and privacy.
- Open Bank Accounts/Add Names to Your Bank Accounts – Now that they have your SSN, attackers can easily open bank accounts in your name. They can also get into your existing accounts and add themselves on so they can use the funds.
- Take Out Loans in Your Name – Armed with your SSN and name, attackers can take out loans and never pay them back. This causes huge damage to your credit rating, ability to get insurance and can even prevent you from getting a job in the future.
- Use Your Health Coverage/Get Medical Treatment in Your Name – Imagine getting a statement for a medical procedure you know you’ve never had — and you have to pay the bill. With just your SSN, a hacker can pose as you, receive medical treatment and stick you with the bill. As terrible as this is, messing with your medical can get much worse; if an attacker is treated in your name, his or her current medical issues will be added to your records, which could lead doctors to prescribe incorrect or unnecessary medications or procedures.
- Claim to be You if Charged With a Crime – Did you really think a hacker would fess up if caught by the police? Nah, they’ll just pretend to be you instead. By giving your name over to the authorities, you have become a part of their web of crime and lies, which may keep you from getting lines of credit and jobs… and worse of all, may land you in prison.
- Open Utilities in Your Name – All it takes is an SSN and name to open accounts at certain utilities such as gas, electric and phone companies. Attackers run up bills under your name and then you get stuck with the bill.
6 Tips to Keep your Social Security Number Out of the Wrong Hands
These are all really terrible prospects — but there are some things you can do to prevent your SSN from fall into the wrong hands:
- Take Your SSN Card Out of Your Wallet – Some people have the habit of carrying their social security card around, but this is a huge mistake. Take it out asap and put it someplace very secure, like a safe deposit box.
- Learn it by Heart – Memorizing your social security number means you’ll never need to write it down unnecessarily.
- Don’t Give Your Number Out – As we mentioned, some companies ask for your SSN but that doesn’t mean you need to give it to them. Unless it’s your employer, bank, the IRS or some other government-backed agency who’s asking, you can, and should decline to provide that information.
- Never Put it in Email or Text – Even if you do need to give over your social to one of the parties listed above, make sure to NEVER put it in email or text message. If your phone/email or the receiving party’s phone or email gets hacked, your social is toast.
- Shred Documents – Another way attackers get your SSN is by fishing through your trash. There is a decent chance that your SSN or other identifying information may be listed somewhere on papers you’re throwing out. Don’t risk it and shred everything with an office-grade shredder.
- Monitor Your Credit Card Statements – Keep super close tabs on your bank and credit card statements. This will allow you to see if anyone has opened anything in your name before there is widespread damage.
When it comes to protecting your social security number, the best move is to never give it out without thoroughly understanding to whom, and why, you’re giving it out. Obviously, a person could do everything right and they could still wind up having their SSN exposed in a large scale corporate breach. But the more you think before giving it out, the better off you’ll be. Keeping your social security number secure is a long term prospect, but one that’s well worth the effort.