As the number of identity theft cases and hacking scams increase, it is becoming more and more important to be aware of where and how you are releasing your personal information. Announced by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 17.6 million U.S. residents experienced some type of identity theft in 2014 (source). The most critical piece of information to protect is the master key to your identity – your Social Security Number (SSN)!
Below are 6 tips to help protect your Social Security Number:
1. Offer Alternate Identification
It is important to be aware of who really needs to know your Social Security number and who does not. Often times financial institutions, employers, and the IRS will require the use of your Social Security number to open a new account, run a background check, or file your taxes. If you are prompted to provide your SSN, ask if an alternate ID such as your driver’s license will work instead. For example, your SSN is not always needed to run a credit report. (source)
2. Ask Questions
3. Don’t Carry Your Social Security Number With You
Wallets and purses can be lost or stolen; protect against further loss by not carrying your Social Security number with you. Check ID cards, health insurance and Medicare cards to see if your SSN or other personal information is listed on the card. If so, leave the card in a safe place. If you need to carry the card, put a piece of paper over your personal information and make a copy to carry with you.
4. Check Your Credit Report
Each year individuals are able to request their credit reports from each of the following agencies:
· Equifax (800-685-1111 or http://www.equifax.com),
· Experian (866-200-6020 or http://www.experian.com), and
· Trans Union (800-888-4213 or http://www.transunion.com).
You can also use the website www.annualcreditreport.com to access all three reports at no cost once per year. Once received, review each one to ensure accuracy and that you have not been a victim of identity theft. Alternatively, if you do not plan on applying for credit in the near future, consider placing a security freeze on your records.
5. Shred Personal Documents
Gaining access to your SSN combined with account numbers, addresses, and birth dates opens the door for identity theft. Most financial institutions, along with the Social Security Administration, have gotten better about not including your full Social Security number on statements or important documents. Instead, you’ll typically find the last 4 digits of your SSN listed. As you replace old statements or documents with new ones that include your SSN, be sure to shred the old. This includes tax returns after 3 to 7 years depending on return specifics.
6. Be Cautious With Online and Electronic Activity
As many individuals and organizations make the shift from paper to electronic activity, be cautious of how you are sharing your information. Refrain from sending your Social Security number via electronic format, storing your SSN on an unprotected computer system, or using your SSN as a log-in (source). When personal information is shared, confirm the use of data encryption. Use strong passwords and update them periodically; also use software that protects against viruses and spyware.
Until organizations no longer use your Social Security number as a primary identifier, individuals are susceptible to various types of identity theft. While some financial institutions may contact you regarding suspicious activity, use the steps above to be cognizant of who has your SSN to try and prevent unauthorized use of your personal information.