How to Protect Your Social Security Number

Once your Social Security number has been viewed by potential identity thieves, there’s no way

Once your Social Security number has been viewed by potential identity thieves, there’s no way for your Social Security number to be secret again. However, there are things you can do to keep your Social Security number safe and limit the risk that a stolen Social Security number can be used against you.

Here’s how to keep your Social Security information secure:

— Know who really needs your number and who doesn’t.

— Don’t carry your Social Security card around with you.

— Shred documents with your Social Security number.

— Don’t give out your Social Security number in unsolicited calls or emails.

— Create a my Social Security account.

When to Provide Your Social Security Number

There are several organizations that require your Social Security number, including your employer, the IRS and financial institutions. But there are many other organizations that might ask for your Social Security number but don’t really need it, including hospitals, doctors, insurers, utilities, schools and retail stores.

“Many forms, like those in doctors’ and dentists’ offices, have a space for your Social Security number, but it may not actually be needed if your insurance company provides its own identification number for your coverage, as most do,” says Neal Stern, a certified public accountant and member of the AICPA’s National CPA Financial Literacy Commission. “Provide your Social Security number only when it’s really needed, and don’t be afraid to ask.” If someone requests your Social Security number, offer alternative forms of identification or ask why they want it and how it will be handled.

[READ: How Much You Will Get From Social Security.]

Ways to Protect Your Social Security Number

Don’t put your Social Security card in your wallet or carry around documents with your Social Security number. If you receive financial statements or other documents containing your Social Security number, lock them away in a safe place or shred them carefully if you don’t need them.

“Make sure you put your Social Security card in a safe, locked spot in your home where you know where it is and you can grab it when you need it,” says Amy Nofziger, director of victim support at AARP’s Fraud Watch Network. “Make sure you shred documents with any personal information on it. We recommend a cross-cut or confetti shredder.”

How to Spot Social Security Number Scams

Some seniors receive telephone calls from people pretending to be representatives from the IRS, Social Security Administration or financial institutions who say they need to confirm your Social Security number. But none of those organizations is likely to reach out to you requesting your number.

“They don’t need to call you and ask you for that information because they already have it,” says Susan Grant, director of consumer protection and privacy for the Consumer Federation of America. “No one is legitimately going to be calling and asking for that. If that happens, tell them ‘no’ and hang up.”

One widespread phone scam involves telling potential victims that their Social Security number has been suspended, which is impossible because Social Security numbers cannot be suspended.

[READ: How to Get a Replacement Social Security Card.]

Create a My Social Security Account

Workers age 18 and older are eligible to create a my Social Security account and get a personalized estimate of future Social Security payments. Establishing a my Social Security account allows you to check the accuracy of your earnings and correct errors, so that you will receive the maximum possible benefit you qualify for. Creating an account also prevents someone else from using your Social Security number to set up an account in your name and gain access to your benefit and earning information.

You can further protect your Social Security account by setting up two-factor authentication. This means that in addition to a username and password, you use a second method of identification, such as a code sent to your cellphone or email address. The Social Security Administration says using two methods of identification each time you log in better protects your account from unauthorized use and identity fraud.

If you don’t want to use a Social Security online account, consider blocking electronic access so that no one else can set up an account using your compromised Social Security number. You can stop all electronic and automated telephone access to your Social Security information. If you later change your mind about interacting with the Social Security Administration remotely, you can unblock your account.

[Read: Social Security Changes Coming in 2021.]

What to Do If You Disclosed Your Social Security Number to an Untrustworthy Source

There are some steps you can take to protect your identity after your Social Security number has been stolen. You could place a credit freeze on your credit reports with the three credit bureaus to further avoid potentially fraudulent activity.

“If you think that your Social Security number has been compromised, you have to be extra vigilant to do things like check your credit report, check the various accounts you have for unusual activity and check the mail for accounts you never opened,” Grant says. “What you can control to some extent is the ease with which an impostor will be able to use it.”

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