What Do I Do If My Social Security Number Is Stolen?

If identity thieves get a hold of your Social Security Number, contact credit bureaus and the police. Here's why.

The Problem

Your Social Security number falls into the wrong hands.

Scare Factor

Boats docked on Lake Champlain.

(Image credit: Thinkstock)

A Social Security number is the Holy Grail of ID theft. Your SSN, along with other tidbits of personal information, such as your name, birth date and mailing address, allows an ID thief to open credit card and bank accounts and take out loans (or access your current ones), apply for government benefits, file a tax return, get medical care, and get a job in your name. Unlike a bank account or credit card number, a Social Security number is permanent; it's not easy to get a new one. That means once it’s exposed, you’ll have to be on alert for life.

How to Combat: Medical ID Theft | Tax Identity Fraud | Lost/Stolen Electronics | Hacked Credit/Debit Account

How to Avoid It

Be wary of giving out your SSN. You’ll have to hand it over to open a new credit account and to obtain government benefits. Your employer requires it for tax purposes. Medical offices may ask for your SSN, but they don’t necessarily need it, especially if they have your health insurance information or if you’ve already provided them your SSN in the past. When in doubt, ask why the SSN is necessary or leave the space for it blank. Some com­panies want the number so they can track you down in case you fail to pay bills. An alternative identifier—say, your phone number—may suffice.

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Shred unneeded documents that include your SSN (as well as other sensitive information, such as bank account and insurance numbers). Store your Social Security card in a safe place at home or in a safe-deposit box; don’t carry it in your wallet.

Beware of scammers who pose as government agencies, banks or other entities and request your SSN or other personal information. They may have information about you that makes them sound like the real deal, and some fraudsters can even make caller identification flash a name that looks legitimate. If you’re not sure whether a call or message is authentic, look up the phone number for the agency or business and ask whether it contacted you.

Watch not only for bills from creditors or other services you never used but also for an absence of bills or statements that you normally receive. Thieves may change your address with the U.S. Postal Service, says Experian’s Frost.

What to Do If You’re a Victim

If you discover that someone has opened accounts or acquired services with your Social Security number, notify the account or benefits managers. Check your credit reports, and place a fraud alert or credit freeze with the major credit bureaus. If you’re a victim of ID theft, the credit bureaus must block fraudulent information from your reports, and the businesses involved can’t ask you to pay any debts. File an identity theft police report, and send a copy of it to the credit bureaus along with any correspondence you have with the bureaus, the government and businesses. It’s also helpful to include the Federal Trade Commission’s identity theft affidavit.

If your Social Security number is continually or aggressively abused, you may be able to get a new one. But qualifying to change your SSN is not easy, and the results are fraught with complications. For example, with a new SSN, you may not benefit from the credit history you built with the previous one, and you may have trouble getting health insurance or a mortgage or other loan, or renting an apartment.

How to Combat: Medical ID Theft | Tax Identity Fraud | Lost/Stolen Electronics | Hacked Credit/Debit Account

Lisa Gerstner
Editor, Kiplinger Personal Finance magazine

Lisa has been the editor of Kiplinger Personal Finance since June 2023. Previously, she spent more than a decade reporting and writing for the magazine on a variety of topics, including credit, banking and retirement. She has shared her expertise as a guest on the Today Show, CNN, Fox, NPR, Cheddar and many other media outlets around the nation. Lisa graduated from Ball State University and received the school’s “Graduate of the Last Decade” award in 2014. A military spouse, she has moved around the U.S. and currently lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband and two sons.