Oops. I Gave My Social Security Number to a Stranger

Life can get hectic and, while media attention on big data breaches has certainly put folks on high alert, there are times when you slip and give some of your personal information away.

Lots of this info, like your credit card account and health insurance ID, can be changed with relative ease. There are nine little digits you’re stuck with, however, that can cause a whole lot of headaches when they fall into the wrong hands. Those digits, of course, are your Social Security number.

Am I Stuck With My Number?

If your Social Security number has been put to nefarious use, you can try to have it changed. SSA.gov lists an identity theft victim continuing to be disadvantaged by “the original number” as one of five cases in which they’ll consider assigning new digits. Per their site, you’ll need to do the following in order to qualify:

  • Apply in person at a Social Security office.
  • Provide a statement explaining the reasons for needing a new number.
  • Provide current, credible, third-party evidence documenting the reasons for needing a new number.
  • Provide original documents establishing U.S. citizenship or work-authorized immigration status; age; identity and evidence of a legal name change, if appropriate.

According to Adam Levin, co-founder of Credit.com and author of “Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves,” it can be difficult, if not downright impossible, to get a new number. And even if you do qualify, you may want to consider the impact of making a switch. In many cases, employment information and medical records are associated with your former Social Security number.

What If a Stranger Has My SSN?

If you know your Social Security number has been compromised, you should do a credit freeze, Levin said. Credit freezes let consumers deny potential creditors access to their credit reports, and, as such, prevent new accounts from being taken out in their name, especially when their credit is frozen at each major credit reporting agency.

Of course, a credit freeze will also make it harder to take out new lines of credit. You would have to thaw your report and then refreeze it (often for a price) before applying for a loan. Levin said you can lessen the hassle by asking a prospective creditor what bureau they use to check credit. If there’s only one, you’ll just have to thaw your report with that bureau.

If you’re hesitant to freeze your reports, at the very least, you should keep a close eye on your credit. You can sign up for credit monitoring or fraud alerts with each bureau, and you can check your credit yourself. (You can pull your credit reports for free each year at AnnualCreditReport.com and view your credit score for free each month on Credit.com.) Signs your identity has been stolen include unfamiliar addresses and accounts, and a sudden drop in your credit score.

Dealing With Identity Theft

Keep in mind “just doing a credit freeze and just monitoring isn’t going to help you in certain situations,” Levin warned, especially when it comes to a compromised Social Security number. Keeping an eye on your credit, for instance, won’t alert you to medical identity theft, taxpayer fraud or, worse, any criminal activity linked to your name.

To minimize the damage any of these examples could cause, you’ll need to stay vigilant. Keep a close eye on statements, like any bills or explanation of benefits your insurer sends your way. You can file your taxes early to avoid a stolen refund, and contact the IRS to flag your account, Levin said (although this is not fail-safe).

If you do fall victim to identity theft, you’ll want to report the fraud to the proper authorities: File a police report and register a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Some states also give victims special documentation that identify them as an identity theft victim and can help reverse fraud stemming from it, Levin said. These ID cards can often be obtained by contacting the state attorney general’s office. You can learn more about dealing with identity theft here.

[Offer: If you’re a victim of identity theft, worried about errors on your credit reports and you don’t want to go it alone, you can hire companies – like our partner Lexington Law – to manage the credit repair process for you. Learn more about them here.]

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