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The dark web is as scary as the name implies. It’s an internet destination, compiled of anonymous and hidden websites, where hackers and thieves can buy, sell and trade stolen personal information, such as credit card numbers, bank account numbers and Social Security numbers.
“Your Social Security number is the most dangerous type of personal information to be stolen because it’s the key to unlock your identity,” said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection and privacy at the nonprofit organization Consumer Federation of America. “It can be used to fraudulently open new accounts in your name, apply for government documents and benefits, get a job, obtain housing and much more.”
In this article:
- Why you should care about Social Security number theft
- Ways a stolen Social Security number can be used
- How to protect your Social Security number
- Discover’s Social Security number monitoring service
- What to do if your SSN is on the dark web
- The bottom line
Identity thieves can obtain your Social Security number in a myriad of ways, including rummaging through trash for personal documents, stealing your physical Social Security card or exploiting data breaches.
In the wake of the recent July 2019 Capital One data breach, which affected over 100 million customers and exposed approximately 140,000 Social Security numbers, the need to monitor and protect your personal data and Social Security number should be even more apparent.
In this post, we’ll explain what you need to know about protecting your Social Security number, including how to know if it’s been stolen and what to do if it’s found on the dark web.
Why you should care about Social Security number theft
What makes this nine-digit number so important? Originally, the U.S. government created Social Security numbers for the sole purpose of tracking the earnings histories of U.S. workers to determine Social Security benefits. However, the number has now been used for a wide range of purposes, including opening bank accounts, applying for credit cards, filing taxes and much more.
“If someone gets your Social Security number, they basically have the keys to the kingdom when it comes to fraud,” said Matt Shulz, chief industry analyst for CompareCards. “That number makes it far easier for someone to establish credit and do other things in your name. That’s why it is particularly important to protect your Social. The last thing you’d want to do is make bad guys’ jobs easier.”
Ways a stolen Social Security number can be used
When someone steals your Social Security number, they are essentially stealing your identity. In addition to opening new accounts in your name, your Social Security number can be used to steal your benefits. Here are a few ways that a thief can use your Social Security number maliciously:
Open financial accounts — Your stolen Social Security number can be used to open new credit card accounts, loans, bank accounts and more, as well as withdraw money from your current accounts. This can cause you to rack up unintended debt and late payment and overdraft fees, thereby negatively impacting your credit score.
File a tax return — A thief can use your stolen Social Security number to file an income tax return in your name and claim your tax refund. This type of theft is known as Stolen Identity Refund Fraud (SIRF).
Commit criminal activities — A person who has a run-in with law enforcement — from a speeding ticket to an arrest — may use your Social Security number instead of their own. This could leave you with outstanding tickets or warrants that you are unaware of.
Receive medical care — If a person uses your Social Security number when receiving medical care, your health care coverage could be negatively impacted. Additionally, any treatments or diagnoses the person receives may appear on your medical records.
Open utility accounts — Criminals can use your Social Security number to open utility accounts, including cable, water, gas and electricity. This can hinder your ability to open new utility accounts in the future and leave you with debts if the bills go unpaid.
Swipe your benefits. Along with using your Social Security number to file for unemployment, a thief can use the number to collect your Social Security benefits.
Short of receiving a letter directly from a company that was breached alerting you that your Social Security number has been exposed, there are other signs to look out for when determining whether your number has been stolen.
How to protect your Social Security number
There are proactive steps you can take to help prevent your Social Security number from appearing on the dark web. Check out these ways to protect yourself against Social Security fraud:
Sign up for identity theft alerts. There are several companies that offer identity theft monitoring and Social Security number scanning (listed below).
Properly dispose of personal documents. Because identity thieves sometimes rummage through garbage at private residences and businesses, it’s important to shred documents that contain your Social Security number prior to throwing them away.
Guard your online information. Change your passwords often, and be aware of phishing emails, which try to obtain your personal information and logins by impersonating a legitimate bank or business.
File your income taxes as early as possible. The sooner you file your taxes, the better the chances are that you’ll do so before a scammer can.
Leave your Social Security card at home. Unless you need to show your physical Social Security card as a form of identification at the DMV, a new employer or elsewhere, you should never carry your card with you in your wallet. Also avoid carrying documents that contain your number with you.
Ultimately, you should “treat your Social Security number like it is gold because that’s what it is to bad guys. When in doubt, don’t give it out,” said Shulz.
Discover’s Social Security number monitoring service
If you do decide to opt for a service to monitor your Social Security number, the service can scan the dark web and alert you if your Social Security number appears there. Here are a few services to consider:
Discover Alerts. Discover offers two types of alerts for primary cardholders: Social Security number alerts and new account alerts. “For the first, we’ll notify you if we find your Social Security number on any of thousands of dark web sites that we are monitoring,” said Shannon Kors, vice president of card programs strategy at Discover. “For the second, we’ll monitor your Experian® credit report every day and notify you when new credit cards, mortgages, car loans or other credit accounts are listed in your name – even if they’re not Discover accounts.”
If you are the primary cardholder of a Discover card, you can log in to your account to activate the alerts for free. “Once you sign up for the service, we send alerts via email (or you can choose to get alerts via text), whatever you prefer,” said Kors.
It’s worth noting that Discover has been a leader in the consumer privacy and security area. In June 2017, Discover became the first major credit card company that allowed card members to activate both Social Security number alerts and new account alerts for free. All Discover credit cards, including the Discover it® Cash Back and Discover it® Miles cards, offer an impressive line-up of safety features. For example, cardholders can freeze their accounts in seconds to prevent new purchases via an on/off switch available on both the mobile app and website.
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What to do if your SSN is on the dark web
If you learn that your Social Security number is on the dark web, follow the five steps below. Note, you should keep detailed documentation of all correspondence related to your stolen identity.
- Report the identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) via IdentityTheft.gov or 877-438-4338.
- Reach out to your local law enforcement agency to file a police report.
- Contact the three major credit bureaus to place a fraud alert along with a credit or security freeze on your credit report.
- Review a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus (for free at annualcreditreport.com) to identify any suspicious or fraudulent activity. Contact any company where your Social Security number may have been used.
- Contact the Social Security office at socialsecurity.gov to inform them that your Social Security number has been stolen.
In extreme cases where you’ve done all you can to fix the issues resulting from the misuse of your Social Security number, and someone is still using your number, the Social Security Administration may assign you a new number.
However, the Social Security Administration warns that “a new number probably won’t solve your problems,” since the IRS, motor vehicle agencies, banks and credit reporting agencies will have your records under the old Social Security number. Also, keep in mind that if your old credit information isn’t associated with the new number, you will not have any credit history.
The bottom line
With so many hackers and thieves waiting to steal and sell personal data, it’s important to stay vigilant — especially when it comes to your Social Security number. In addition to signing up for services that scan the dark web for your Social Security number, a few proactive measures, such as shredding personal documents and monitoring services, can go a long way in protecting your private data and save you from a lot of headaches in the long run.