Millions of Social Security numbers have been compromised due to a data breach at the credit reporting firm Equifax. And once your 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:
- Create a my Social Security account.
- Set up two-factor authentication.
- Block electronic access to your Social Security account.
- Don’t give out your number in unsolicited calls or emails.
- Shred documents with your number.
- Know who really needs your number and who doesn’t.
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. The Social Security Administration points out that creating an account 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.
Set Up Two-Factor Authentication
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.
“Once your information is in the hands of a business or organization or agency, there really is nothing you can do to protect it. You have to trust them to protect it, and sometimes they don’t do a good job,” says Susan Grant, director of consumer protection and privacy at the Consumer Federation of America. “What you can control to some extent is the ease with which an impostor will be able to use it.” Two or more forms of identification makes it more difficult for impostors to break into your account.
Block Electronic Access to Your Social Security Account
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.
Don’t Give Out Your Number in Unsolicited Calls or Emails
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,” Grant says. “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.
Shred Documents With Your 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, regional director of the AARP Foundation. “Make sure you shred documents with any personal information on it. We recommend a cross cut or confetti shredder.”
Know Who Really Needs Your Number and Who Doesn’t
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.”