Your doctor's office, your employer, the DMV—they all want your Social Security number. But the group that wants it most? Identity thieves.
Social Security numbers are "the crown jewel of information" for thieves, says Neal O'Farrell, executive director of the nonprofit Identity Theft Council, which provides support to people whose identities have been stolen. A thief can take that nine-digit number and open a line of credit, file for a tax refund or apply for a job -- all in your name.
In 2017 identity thieves hit a record 16.7 million Americans—up 8 percent from 2016.1 Also in 2017, for the first time ever, Social Security numbers were compromised more than credit card numbers in breaches.
Consider these three ways to protect your Social Security number (and yourself) against identity theft:
1. Monitor your credit report closely
Each of the three major credit agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) is required by law to provide one free credit report per year. You can request all three reports at once, or stagger your requests so that you get a picture of your credit every four months. Request your reports at AnnualCreditReport.com.
2. Try not to give out your Social Security number
Some people, such as your doctor or accountant, really do need your Social Security number. Otherwise, says O'Farrell, refuse "for as often and as long as you can." If you must give the number, it's worth asking about security measures:
- Are background checks required for their employees?
- How good is their network security?
- What are the office policies for sharing information?
3. Freeze your credit and/or set up account alerts
A credit freeze prevents anyone from opening a line of credit in your name unless you remove the restriction. Existing creditors will still generally be able to check your credit.
Under a new federal law from 2018, creating and lifting a freeze is free, you'll just need to contact the three major credit bureaus. Freezing your credit also prevents potential employers from checking it, so you might wait if you're on a job hunt. Learn more about credit freezes.
One thing to note—a freeze will not protect your existing (open) accounts. To monitor your existing accounts, you can set up account alerts. Most banks offer alerts where you can be notified via email or text whenever there is a large deposit or transfer so you can confirm the transaction is valid.
No one is completely safe from identity theft. But these simple precautions can dramatically reduce your risk.