A Social Security number (SSN) is probably the single most important piece of government-issued identification an American citizen can have. It's definitely the most valuable piece of ID that identity thieves can get their hands on, especially when combined with the bearer's name and address. Even by itself, a valid SSN can be sold to undocumented workers or to people trying to hide their identities.
A stolen SSN lets the thief, or the person he or she sells it to, do almost everything a legitimate SSN holder can do — and more. By assuming a real person's name and SSN, a thief can steal property and money from that person. If an identity-theft victim's name and SSN are used by criminals, it's the victim whom the police will be looking for.
Having your Social Security number stolen is like someone getting their hands on your bank account number — actually, it’s worse than that. You can get a new bank account number, but the Social Security Administration very rarely issues new numbers. If an identity thief has your Social Security number, they can commit all sorts of financial fraud with it, potentially leaving you on the hook for their misconduct. Think about it: Social Security numbers are wrapped up in most aspects of Americans’ lives — employment, medical histories, taxes, education, bank accounts and so on. If someone else finds your Social Security number, here are a few destructive things they can do with it:
1. Open Financial Accounts: Your Social Security number is the most important piece of personal information a bank needs when extending you credit or opening an account. With that number, the thief can get credit cards or loans, and when it comes time to repay them, they won’t, damaging your credit in the process. The missed payments are tied to your Social Security number, meaning they’ll end up on your credit report.
In some ways, that’s one of the better outcomes of identity theft — you can use your credit scores and credit reports to spot fraud and put an end to it. Unfortunately, it could take a while for the fraudulent information to be removed from your credit report and, as a result, for your credit scores to recover.
2. Get Medical Care: Someone using your Social Security number could undergo medical treatment, effectively tainting your medical records. Inaccurate medical records could have deadly consequences, if you receive treatment based on a false history. Thieves could also poach your health insurance coverage, which could leave you in a bind when you need it.
3. File for a Fraudulent Tax Refund: Taxpayer identity theft is a growing problem. Identity thieves use stolen Social Security numbers to get a fraudulent refund, which then delays any refund the victim is rightfully owed. The IRS loses billions of dollars to this crime every year, and it’s a growing threat in the wake of massive data breaches. The sooner you file your taxes, the more likely it is you’ll get to your refund before an identity thief.
You’ll know someone stole your identity if your return is rejected as a duplicate — then you get to start the process of resolving the fraud and, if necessary, getting the refund you deserve.
4. Commit Crimes: Getting your Social Security number might just be a fraction of the thief’s crimes. If the identity thief gets arrested for another crime and gives your Social Security number to law enforcement, you’ve become tangled in their criminal history.
5. Steal Your Benefits: A thief could also use your Social Security number to file for unemployment or Social Security benefits, depleting the assistance you may need to access later on.
Thieves can operate under your identity for years without discovery, and some of these crimes are very difficult to detect. (One of the best things you can do is regularly check your credit reports (you can also get your free credit report summary from Credit.com, updated every month), reviewing them thoroughly for unauthorized accounts or public records not related to you. These red flags could indicate clerical errors or identity theft. Either way, you want to watch out for it and act as soon as you see something suspicious. Here are more ways you can find out if you’re a victim of identity theft.
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