When she lost her wallet, a Los Angeles woman thought she’d merely have to cancel her credit cards. A few unauthorized charges were only the beginning.
Soon, the “Congratulations” letters started arriving.
She’d landed two bank accounts, a Target credit card, and more. The problem? She’d never applied any of that.
After freezing her credit with all three credit bureaus and battling to clean up the mess, she came to one conclusion – identity theft is no joke.
As it turns out, her Social Security number had been compromised in a data breach. The site offered $125 and free credit monitoring, but she’s yet to see the money.
Why Freeze Your Social Security Number?
Social Security numbers are powerful.
Whether you’re opening a bank account, buying a home, or filling out paperwork on your first day at your dream job, that nine-digit number is like a secret password. The IRS uses it to track your taxes, and lenders use it to verify your credit.
That’s why the number can be so dangerous in the wrong hands. How does this affect us? If our number is stolen, someone can apply for credit or set up new accounts with it. The result can be long-lasting damage to our credit scores or nasty calls from creditors about the debt we didn’t create.
When that happens, the first thing we should do is STOP the damage. While we can’t “freeze” a Social Security number, there are three major ways we can keep someone else from using it:
- Blocking electronic access to your Social Security number
- Protecting your tax filing
- Freezing your credit
How To Block Electronic Access to Your SSN?
The Federal government uses a program called E-Verify to help employers match job applicants to official records. Like many federal programs, scammers found a way around the system.
That’s when the Social Security Self-Lock feature came along.
With Self Lock, you “lock” your Social Security number so nobody can use it for E-Verify. Your Social Security number can’t be used for phone or electronic verification.
The easiest way to activate Self-Lock is through myE-Verify. Follow these steps to set it up:
If you’d prefer to lock your Social Security number by phone, call 1-800-772-1213 (TTY number at 1-800-325-0778).
This lock only lasts one year. You’ll need to request it each year. You’ll be notified 30 days before the expiration with an invitation to renew.
That ONLY helps if a scammer uses your number to apply for a job, though. There are plenty of other instances where that number can be used for fraud.
Someone can use your Social Security number to file taxes or apply for loans using your credit. You’ll need to take separate measures to protect yourself in those areas, starting with the IRS.
How To Protect Your Tax Filing?
Every year at tax time, I see warnings about tax filing fraud. All someone needs is a Social Security number to file someone else’s taxes and possibly redirect any refunds going to that person.
It’s not quite that easy. The IRS has protections in place, but scammers still find ways around them to commit tax fraud.
In response to the fraud, it sees every year, the IRS has come up with a way to protect us. It’s called an Identity Protection PIN, or IP PIN for short. Here are the steps to get one:
Set up an ID.me ID with the IRS here.
You’ll be prompted to verify your identity. There are two options for doing this:
There’s another way to request an IP PIN, but it’s only available to those making less than $73,000 ($146,000 for joint returns) annually.
Like the E-Verify lock, this PIN only lasts one year. You’ll have to renew it every single tax season to keep the protection. Oh, and the IRS only allows you to renew from mid-January through mid-November.
But neither the E-Verify lock nor the IP PIN will protect you if someone uses your Social Security number for credit. That’s handled by the credit bureaus themselves. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to block someone from using your Social Security number for loans or purchases.
How To Freeze Your Credit?
Several years ago, I froze my credit. It took just a few minutes and it was well worth it. It helps me sleep a little better at night.
Here’s what freezing my credit did –
If someone gets my Social Security number and tries to access my credit report (or score), the freeze blocks them. That means someone won’t be able to open any new accounts in my name, including credit cards and personal loans.
When I do someday need credit again, I can either end the freeze or temporarily lift it, putting it back in place as soon as my loan is secured.
The bad news is that you’ll have to request the freeze with each of the three credit bureaus separately.
The good news is that each bureau has an online process that makes it easy. Here are the processes for each credit bureau.
The easiest way to freeze your credit with Equifax is through its website.
You’ll simply click on the “Get Started” with a Freeze button, then follow the prompts. Once your freeze is in place, you can manage or cancel it by going back to that site and clicking “Manage a Freeze.”
If you’d prefer to manage your security freezes by phone, call (888) 298-0045. Be prepared to give your name, Social Security number, and state of residence. You’ll also need to verify your identity through one of the following:
- Receive a one-time PIN via text
- Answer questions based on information in your Equifax credit report
Lastly, Equifax lets you request a freeze by mail. You’ll complete this form and mail it to the address listed at the bottom. To manage your freeze by mail, you’ll have to provide identification. The list of acceptable documents is available here.
Experian’s online credit freeze also lets you both initiate and manage your credit freeze. You’ll need to sign up for an Experian account and follow the prompts to complete your freeze. If you need to unfreeze it, go back to the page, log in, and manage your freeze.
While the website is the easiest way to manage credit freezes, Experian also lets you do it by phone or mail:
Call (888) 397-3742 to request a freeze or remove a freeze.
By mail, include your:
- Full name
- Social Security number
- Complete addresses for the past two years
- Date of birth
- Government-issued identification card, such as a driver’s license
- Copy of a utility bill or bank statement
Send the request to Experian Security Freeze, P.O. Box 9554, Allen, TX 75013. Allow three business days for processing once it’s received.
You can request a TransUnion credit freeze through the website or the TransUnion app.
You’ll need to sign up for an account first. This requires your name, the last four digits of your Social Security number, your address, and your birthdate. You’ll also have to answer a few questions to verify your identity.
Once you’ve frozen your credit, you can return to unfreeze it at any time.
You can also freeze your credit by mail or phone. Allow three extra business days for this option. You’ll need to choose a six-digit PIN that you’ll use whenever you need to manage a freeze you initiated by mail or phone.
If you prefer to set up and manage your freeze by phone, call (800) 916-8800.
You can also send your request in writing. Include your name, address, and Social Security number and address it to TransUnion, P.O. Box 160, Woodlyn, PA 19094.
You might not hear about them often, but there are two other credit agencies to consider. You may want to freeze your credit with them, as well:
Before you start freezing, though, you probably want to know how this will affect the stuff you already have going on. If you’re renting, for instance, will you have issues when you apply for a lease renewal or a new lease? Will a potential employer be able to check your credit if you’ve given approval?
The answer is that “Yes,” activities you’ve authorized will still go through. Here are some of the things you’ll still be able to do with your credit and Social Security numbers on pause:
A credit freeze won’t keep fraudsters from accessing your bank accounts or spending your money. It simply “locks” down your Social Security number.
The same goes for credit freezes. If your financial data falls into the wrong hands, it could still impact your bottom line.
The biggest risk of a credit freeze is simply that you’ll forget to unfreeze it. So, if you apply for a new credit card or line of credit, you may not be approved or the process may take longer. So, be sure to remember to thaw your credit when you find yourself in these situations.
How To Handle Identity Theft?
If you suspect your identity has been compromised, it’s important to gather as much information as possible. If you haven’t already, do the following:
1. Contact Your Bank
The first thing to protect is your money. You’ll want to make sure someone hasn’t used your information to access your bank account. If they haven’t already, a call to your bank could prevent future attempts to access it.
Contact your bank’s customer service line and let them know what happened. Ask them if they can flag your account for unusual activity. If you have reason to believe your debit or credit card might have been compromised, mention that, as well, and contact any other credit card issuers that might have been affected.
2. Pull Your Credit Report
If scammers have used your Social Security to obtain credit, your credit score might have suffered some damage. There’s only one way to find out:
Pull your credit report.
Did you know you’re entitled to one free credit report a year? Even more, if you’re a victim of identity theft. To get your free report, go to AnnualCreditReport.com and submit a request for each of the three credit bureaus.
Carefully review each entry on that credit report and look for any discrepancies. If you see something incorrect, dispute it with the corresponding credit bureau. You can dispute errors on your credit report online here:
- Equifax: https://www.equifax.com/personal/credit-report-services/credit-dispute/
- Experian: https://www.experian.com/disputes/main.html
- TransUnion: https://service.transunion.com/dss/login.page?dest=dispute
Continue to monitor your credit report and dispute any errors until you’re sure the danger has passed.
✎ Related: Preventing Hard Inquiries ⟶
3. Report It
Identity theft should be reported. This will not only keep criminals from getting away with it, but it will also document the incident, which will help when you’re dealing with creditors in the coming months.
Start by filing a police report with your local authorities. They should be able to guide you through the process. In some cities, you can even complete the paperwork online.
Next, report the incident to the Federal Trade Commission. You can go to IdentityTheft.gov and start the process.
✎ Related: How can SSN identity theft happen? ⟶
4. Consider Identity Theft Protection
It might seem like too little, too late, but identity theft protection can help you even after an incident. Services like Aura, IDShield, and IdentityForce keep an eye on the credit bureaus and let you know about suspicious activity.
Moving forward, you’ll have the peace of mind of knowing that if there’s an incident, the coverage will help cover the cost associated with cleaning it up.
When to Freeze Your Social Security Number?
It isn’t always a good idea to “freeze” your Social Security number. You might need it, after all.
But there are some times when it’s a no-brainer. Here are a few of them.
1. Your Number May Have Been Compromised
Do you have reason to believe your Social Security number might have been stolen? Maybe a service you use had a data breach, or perhaps you’ve seen some sketchy activity on your credit report.
If you suspect your Social Security number might be used to make purchases or apply for loans, now’s the time to take action. Locking down your number and freezing your credit could be just what you need to prevent damage.
How do you know if your Social Security number might have been compromised? Here are some signs it might be time to protect yourself:
2. You’re in a Turbulent Situation
We’ve all been through bad breakups in our life. Maybe it’s a falling out with a friend or roommate. Maybe it’s a relationship or even a marriage that’s coming to an end.
It doesn’t even have to be personal. Maybe you terminated an employee or had a falling out with your business partner.
Where there are hurt feelings, there can sometimes be REVENGE.
The fallout could hit your bank accounts, credit reports, and more.
Locking your Social Security number and freezing your credit can get you through the tough times. When you’re ready to unlock it and move on, you can do so in just a few steps.
3. You’re Retired and Settled
Locking your Social Security number means future employers won’t be able to verify your employment eligibility. But if you’re retired, that won’t be a problem.
So now it’s time to ask whether you plan to use your credit in the future. If not, you can freeze your credit. Make sure you set a reminder to unfreeze your credit if you ever plan to apply for a loan or move to a new home.
You still may want to sign up for the IRS’s Identity Protection PIN each year, even after you’re retired. This will keep you safe during tax time and beyond.
4. You Won’t Be Using It
I don’t need my credit.
We’re not moving anytime soon, and I’ll pay cash for my car when I need one. I don’t need any loans or credit cards, and I’m happy with my bank account.
So, I’m currently in a position where not much is going to change for a while, are you?
Will you be applying for home or car loans, renting an apartment, requesting student loans for college, or switching jobs anytime soon?
If so, keep everything as-is.
But if you’re like me, freezing your credit and blocking access to your Social could give you some much-needed relief. You won’t be using it, so why not block everyone else from accessing it, too?
No matter your situation, though, it can’t hurt to apply for an IRS PIN each year. It’ll help protect your Social Security number without keeping you from going about your business.
How To Protect Your SSN?
Whether your Social Security number has been compromised or not, it’s important to do what it takes, starting today, to keep that number safe. Here are some things you can do before, during, and after your efforts to freeze your Social.
1. Leave Your Social Security Card at Home
At some point, you probably were handed your Social Security number on a small paper card. While other identification cards go straight into your wallet, though, that’s not the way it works with a Social Security card.
The vast majority of the time, you’ll only need the number. In fact, I haven’t used my actual card in years. It’s tucked into a drawer, safe and sound.
That’s where your Social Security card should be. Memorize the number and lock your card away, preferably in a locked safe. A paper card can easily be lost, putting the number in the wrong hands.
2. Guard Your SSN
Social Security numbers were never meant to be used as personal identifiers. Unfortunately, over the years, that message has been lost.
Your employer and bank might need the information to run a credit check.
Healthcare providers often need it to run your insurance information.
If you’re contacting them on the phone, though, they should be able to go with the last four digits to verify it. Keep in mind that phone calls can be intercepted and all nine digits can be swiped.
Anytime someone asks for those numbers, question why. If there’s another identifier you can use, choose that instead.
3. Protect Your Files
Chances are, your Social Security number is on paper somewhere. Your medical providers may have it on file, or your HR department at work might have it on a document that’s in your employee folder in a file cabinet.
Hopefully, those documents will stay secure. They may even have policies to safeguard it.
But what about your own home? Is your Social Security on a piece of paper in your home office? What about files you print out and throw away?
It’s not just your Social Security number, either. You probably toss items in the trash all the time that have your name, address, phone number, medical information, and more.
I have a shredder. There are also roller stamps and markers you can buy to redact items on your paperwork before you toss it. Being able to disguise your personal information takes the stress out of throwing things away.
Don’t forget your digital files, either. One determined hacker can get access to all kinds of information. A password manager like Bitwarden, 1Password, or Dashlane can help keep the information on your devices safe and sound.
Chances are you’ll never have your Social Security number compromised. If it happens, though, there are some things you can do to keep scammers from using your credit or opening new accounts in your name.
If your situation allows, you may want to go ahead and freeze your Social Security number and credit reports to provide a little extra safety. Activating your IRS Identity Protection PIN should be on your to-do list every year to ensure that nobody can file a tax return using your information.
Lastly, enrolling in an identity theft protection service like Aura is your best bet. These services monitor your accounts for suspicious activity so that thieves can be stopped from doing more damage.
Also, Aura offers $5 million in identity theft protection for you and members of your family. If you’re single, you’re covered for $1 million. I’d say that sounds like a good way to recover from the trauma of getting your money and identity stolen. Sometimes it’s not even a matter of “if” identity theft can happen to you. With the way things are going, I’d say it’s a matter of when. Take care of business NOW.