How 3.5 Million Social Security Number Details Get Stolen Every Year

Key causes and protection steps against Social Security Number theft: Internet Scambusters #464

Social Security number theft is big business, mostly because
people don’t safeguard their wallets and purses.

But there are other ways crooks get their hands on this vital
piece of information, including dumpster diving, as we reveal
in this week’s issue.

We also explain the steps you can take to avoid your Social
Security Number from falling into the wrong hands.

But first, we urge you to take a look at these top articles
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And now for the main feature…

How 3.5 Million Social Security number Details Get Stolen Every Year

We’ve written many times about Social Security number theft
and you can read more about it and what to do if your number
is compromised at our Identity Theft Information Center.

With an estimated 3.5 million SSNs stolen every year (based
on research findings from Javelin Strategy), we’re taking a
step back to explore in more detail exactly how numbers are
stolen and what you can do to protect yours.

In fact, according to the same research, more than two in
every five identity thefts come from stolen wallets or
physical paperwork and only one-in-ten originates on the

You may be surprised at the variety of other techniques crooks
use to get hold of your Social Security number.

These include:

* Dumpster diving and trash searches. Yes, people actually
will search through your garbage for documents that include
your Social Security number.

* Mail theft. It’s the opposite of dumpster diving — people
take a look at your mail before you even receive it by raiding
mailboxes, or intercepting it before it’s delivered.

In some instances, thieves file a change of address report
with the USPS to divert your mail (though USPS has checks in
place to try to prevent this from happening).

* Hacking and data theft. This may be via the Internet,
directly breaking into networks, or taking computer printouts.

Sometimes, digital records on laptops and tape drives are
stolen. In the biggest incident of its type, in 2007, almost
800,000 Social Security numbers were compromised when a backup
tape was stolen from a car in Ohio.

This category also includes viruses and spyware that troll
through victims’ PCs looking for a Social Security number or
other confidential information, then transmitting the details
to the scammer.

* Phishing. Many times, victims just give their number to
impostors who claim to be banks, landlords or others who might
require their Social Security number for their supposed
security purposes.

Crooks may even pose as officials from the Social Security
Administration itself, asking victims to confirm their

* Dishonest employees and co-workers. They take a peek inside
your purse or wallet while you’re away from your desk, or
examine HR records to which they have access.

* Reading them off other cards. Social Security numbers are
included on a number of other identification cards, including
some used by the military (now being phased out and replaced),
Medicare (Congress attempts to change this have so far failed)
and other health insurers.

One of the key reasons why a Social Security number is such a
juicy target for thieves is precisely because of its
widespread use for verifying identity.

This was not the original plan when Social Security was
introduced. As the nonprofit consumer advocacy group, Privacy
Rights Clearinghouse (PRC), reports:

“When Social Security numbers were first issued in 1936, the
federal government assured the public that their use would be
limited to Social Security programs such as calculating
retirement benefits.”

Hmm, that’s certainly not how it works today, is it? Many
banks, credit card issuers and other financing applications
ask for it, your employer wants it and maybe even your
children’s school records it.

You can read more about the way your Social Security number
may be stored and used, including some alarming instances —
like being sold online — as well as actions now in the
pipeline to try to limit some of those exposures, in a PRC
factsheet: Fact Sheet 10: My Social Security Number – How Secure Is It?

Protect Your Social Security Number from Theft

Next, we summarize the most important things you can do to try
to prevent your Social Security number from being stolen:

* First and foremost, don’t carry your card around with you.
Memorize the number.

And don’t carry other cards with the number unless you know
you’re going to need them.

The PRC even suggests photocopying these must-carry cards,
leaving the original at home and deleting all but the last
three digits on the copy that you carry with you.

However, we’re not able to say whether all medical service
providers would accept this.

* Whether you have these identifying cards with you or not,
keep your wallet securely with you or under lock and key at
all times.

* Don’t store your Social Security number in an unencrypted
file on your computer.

If you don’t know how to password protect or encrypt files on
your computer, either find out or don’t store those details.

Remember, this doesn’t refer just to the number itself but to
any documents — like copies of tax returns, pay slips and
financing applications — that contain them.

* Shred all documents that contain your Social Security number
and other confidential information before disposing of them.
Tearing them in half is not enough!

We covered the subject of shredding earlier, in a special
issue: Shredding: A Key Weapon in Your Document Security and Identity Theft Prevention Strategies

* If your outside mailbox doesn’t already have a lock and key,
consider buying one that does. Just do an online search for
“locking mailboxes.”

* Never give out your Social Security number over the phone if
you didn’t initiate the call. You have absolutely no way of
being 100% sure of who you’re speaking to.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) or any other
legitimate organization would never ask you for your full
number, though some financial institutions might ask for the
final three or four digits.

* Likewise, beware of providing the number to anyone else who
asks for it online, by email or by mail.

You’re not legally required to provide it to anyone other than
the SSA, the IRS, a couple of other government departments
and, probably, your employer.

You should ask anyone else who requests it why they need it
and whether they would accept some other form of

You have to be 100% sure of the authenticity of whomever wants
it and 100% sure they really need it. Otherwise, don’t hand it

However, some organizations may refuse to do business with you
if you don’t provide your Social Security number. That’s their
right, and your choice.

For more information, see these two guides from the SSA:
Your Social Security Number And Card

Identity Theft And Your Social Security Number

The latter document also explains the circumstances under
which you might be able to get a new Social Security number.

In other circumstances, there may not be much you can do to
protect your Social Security number when it’s held and stored
by others outside of your control.

In that case, vigilance is your watchword and you should
follow the guidance in our Identity Theft Information Center
on how to monitor your Social Security number, credit records
and the usage of other personal data.

That’s all we have for today, but we’ll be back next week with
another issue. See you then!