To Avoid Identity Theft, Guard Those Nine Precious Digits
According to the Federal Trade Commission, more than 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year; and, with advancements in banking and web technology, that number is growing. Identity theft is a pervasive and continuous event, when thieves or hackers obtain an individual's personal identifying information for their monetary benefit.
Imagine logging into your bank account one day to find out that your account number has been stolen; now there are dozens of unauthorized transactions that just won't stop. Identity theft can occur in so many ways and can wreak innumerable types of harm on people. ATM card skimmers, internet viruses, phone scammers or the simple loss of a checkbook, credit card or personal document can leave the door wide open for a thief to assume some aspect of your financial life.
The holy grail for identity thieves is a Social Security number. This nine-digit, government-issued number identifies you on tax documents, credit and medical insurance information and bank accounts. If an identity thief gets a hold of your SSN, he might obtain complete access to your accounts, which could lead to financial hardship, or even ruin, that can be difficult to repair.
SSNs and Banking -- A Numbers Game
There are many types of identity theft, but thieves commonly take over your savings and checking accounts with your Social Security number. The consumer division of the Federal Trade Commission puts it best: "If identity thieves have your personal information, they can drain your bank account, run up charges on your credit cards, open new utility accounts or get medical treatment on your health insurance."
The Social Security Administration only recently began randomizing SSNs. Prior to 2011, the first three and middle two digits of the nine-number combination reflected a person's birthdate and place of birth. The last four numbers are really what thieves want, and though they're also the hardest to guess and obtain, they can still be had.
The Privacy Act of 1974 states that you are not obligated to give out your SSN to government agencies or other organizations, though many people still do, unaware of this statute. So what are some ways that your SSN can be illegally obtained?
- Banks and other financial institutions are accustomed to using SSNs -- at least in part -- to comprise account numbers. They might also use your number as a security question to gain access to your account if you've forgotten your password or PIN. If someone has your lost or stolen Social Security card, he can identify himself as you and obtain access to your hard-earned money. The same can be said for accessing your lines of credit, and it can be hard to tell if this information is compromised without your balance being maxed out or seemingly irregular charges being made.
- According to the Social Security Administration, identity thieves can view personal or business information provided on unsecured Internet sites.
- It sounds farfetched, but identity crooks are known to bribe personal information from employees of stores where you shop -- for instance, on applications for store credit cards or special orders.
- Minimize your usage of the Social Security. If asked to provide it, ask if you can give an alternative. Inadvertently giving out your number over the phone might result in identity theft as well, as the caller might be a scammer.
- Go sans card. Credit bureau TransUnion advises that one of the items you should never carry in your wallet is your Social Security card. Simply misplacing or dropping it, or your wallet, could put you in jeopardy.
- Shred your documents. Never throw out personal paperwork that could contain your Social Security number or other sensitive information; just invest in a shredder. Tearing sensitive documents up into little bits isn't enough, either. Many organizations like AAA hold document shredding days when they take care of this for you.
- Pick up that phone. If you fear your identity has been stolen, or notice any strange unauthorized behavior in your bank account, call the authorities -- that includes your bank, the police and the FTC. Check your credit report annually to see if last year's documented activity is correct. If not, dispute it -- it could be due to identity theft.
Under justified circumstances, anyone can apply for a brand new SSN. The same process applies for requesting a new or replacement Social Security card -- you can apply in person at your local Social Security office. There, according to the Social Security Administration, you'll need to provide:
- Your current SSN.
- Documents establishing your citizenship or immigration status, as well as age, identity and name changes, if any.
If there's a shadow of a doubt that your identity has been stolen or compromised, act on it before your identity becomes a shadow of who you are.