Here's What Hackers Do with Your Social Security Number and How to Protect It
We sincerely hope that all of you fully understand that your Social Security number should remain private. You must know by now that few organizations are supposed to ask for it and that before you give it away, you must know who's requesting it and what they're going to do with it exactly. Only then you can give it away and hope that they'll keep it safe. Which they often don't.
Here's just a quick recap of some of the recent cybersecurity incidents that involved Social Security numbers. Last month, Yale University learned that some ten years ago, cybercriminals stole the Social Security numbers of about 119 thousand individuals. Also in July, HR firm CompliRight announced that it had been targeted by a cyberattack which exposed the Social Security numbers of an unknown number of individuals. And of course, nobody can forget the Equifax breach from 2017 during which 143 million Social Security numbers fell into the crooks' hands.
Cybercriminals are clearly interested in the nine-digit numbers. They wouldn't be if there was no way to benefit from them, and today, we'll take a look at some of the things they can do after they steal your Social Security number.
Opening bank accounts and applying for loans and credit cards
It's the money-for-nothing scheme. The crooks take out a loan or get a credit card in your name and embark on a shopping spree. Of course, they have absolutely no intention of paying the bills which is why, you suddenly find yourself being chased by a few financial institutions that want their money back. Even if you manage to persuade them that it wasn't you who took the cash and ran, the delayed payments will ruin your credit history which could have serious consequences down the line.
And even if they don't issue a credit card or take out a loan, they can simply open a bank account in your name and use it for all manner of criminal activities. Eventually, the police will come knocking at your door, and you'll have quite a lot of explaining to do.
Apply for your tax refund
Don't you all long for the moment when the government will actually give you something back? Well, if criminals have your Social Security number, they can get it instead of you. In fact, tax fraud is rampant, and reports suggest that several billion dollars in fraudulent tax refunds are being sent the wrong way every year.
Before every tax season, security experts warn you to be extra careful with the emails you receive because crooks are known to phish for Social Security numbers, especially when the time for filing tax returns comes. People are often advised not to wait for the deadline as well. If you file your documents earlier, the identity thieves will have less time to impersonate you and run away with your money.
Getting medical help
Granted, this is a less likely scenario, but it is possible. If a criminal wants to cover his identity (for example, he's running from the law) but needs some medical attention, he can use your Social Security number to impersonate you. This will alter your medical records, and under certain circumstances, altered medical records could be life-threatening.
Again, this isn't as likely as the rest of the possible attacks, but the consequences are serious enough to keep it in mind. And if you happen to have already had your Social Security number stolen, you should perhaps check regularly to ensure that your medical records don't show any anomalies.
There are numerous other ways in which identity thieves can use your own Social Security number against you. Unfortunately, there aren't that many things you can do once the number is stolen.
Not many ways of fighting back
It is theoretically possible to ask the Social Security Administration for a new number. Before you receive it, however, you'll need to prove that you're getting it not because you're doing something illegal, but because your old one is being abused and "is causing you significant continuing harm." It's a cumbersome process, and even if you do manage to get a new number, this might not solve all your problems.
According to the Social Security Administration's own leaflets, other government agencies and private organizations might not get your new Social Security number immediately which, in turn, leaves the opportunity for identity theft wide open. In a world where even your light bulbs are connected to the Internet, this sounds positively strange, but it is what it is, and it's just one more reason to be extra mindful about the security of your Social Security number.
Be careful who you share it with, and don't carry your Social Security card with you unless you absolutely need to.