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 from our other websites:

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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 Internet.

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 numbers.

* 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 identification.

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 over.

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!