Has a thief stolen your unique identification number?
When we talk about identity theft, there’s no other piece of information more essential than your Social Security number. There might be a thousand other people named John Smith, but you’re the only xxx-xx-4891.
Or you’re supposed to be. But that unique identifier is put to practical use at your job, your bank, and other places that request it for convenience but don’t necessarily need it. In other words, there are a lot of options for thieves, especially once that information gets online.
Fact: In 2013, 16 percent of consumers whose Social Security numbers were stolen in a data breach became identity theft victims, according to Javelin Strategy.
Here are some ways thieves might acquire your Social Security number:
- Stealing your wallet or purse
- Stealing your mail, including bank or credit card statements, new checks, or tax documents
- Digging through the trash at your home or workplace for unshredded documents
- Pretending to be someone (over phone or email) who needs your number
That makes the best ways to protect yourself obvious: Leave your card in a secure location at home, not in your wallet. Pick up your mail promptly and shred it before discarding. And don’t give out your number to anyone unless you know them and there is no alternative.
Getting a new number
If you’re a victim of Social Security identity theft, it’s possible to change your Social Security number. That’s about the only thing the Social Security Administration can do to help you. But it’s not always a good idea — it could make it harder to get credit.
For one thing, other government agencies and businesses have records from your old number, and all that information may be mixed in your credit reports, especially if other identifiers like your address and name still match up. You’ll still need to go through the process of getting an identity theft report.
Even if your new number does end up providing a fresh start, you now have no credit history to be judged by and may have difficulty qualifying for credit cards and other loans.
Note that the Social Security Administration will not issue a new number for anything other than demonstrable identity theft. They won’t change it simply because your card was lost or stolen, or to help you start over after bankruptcy, or to otherwise avoid legal responsibility.