The rise of networked computer systems and cloud storage has brought with it many conveniences, from easy usage of credit all over the world to ubiquitous access to that document you were working on earlier. However, the wired (and wireless) world has some real dangers as well. One of the less helpful aspects of networking has been the spectacular rise in identity theft. Identity theft is a crime that strikes at the heart of a modern citizen’s wealth, employment, social services, and more. Our identity – specifically, the electronically-encoded identity that serves as the gateway to our bank accounts, to our home security systems, to our e-mail and network resources – can be stolen by unscrupulous people and used for crimes great and small.
At best, an identity thief may use part of your identity as the launchpad for some phony persona that they are using to commit acts of fraud and light scams. At worst, they can drain your bank accounts, destroy your credit rating, and wipe out your hard-earned retirement benefits. Identity theft is not a minor crime – in 2018, more than 60 million Americans reported that they were affected by identity theft.
To function online today, you’ll barricade your most personal information behind a variety of secret questions, security codes, identifiers, and passwords. Take the example of someone with a very, very simple online presence. These folks might have a Facebook user ID and password, a banking user ID and password, an email user ID and password…and one other thing that every American possesses: a Social Security Number.
The Social Security Number is a relic of the distant past, in computer terms. When the Social Security system was created in 1935, electronic computers were still more or less a pipe dream. Mechanical adding machines were the “mainframes” of the day, and the Social Security Number assigned to American citizens was of a similar old-school sensibility.
The Secret Meaning Of Your Social Security Number
- The Secret Meaning Of Your Social Security Number
- What If Someone Steals My Social Security Number?
- Social Security Fraud: The Signs
- Directly Check Your Social Security Number
- Someone’s Got Your Number – What Can You Do?
- Managing Your Credit Accounts Can Be A Task. We’ve Got Resources That Can Help!
Social Security Numbers are a series of three digits, followed by two digits, followed by four digits – and the various digit combinations are meaningful. That is, Social Security Numbers didn’t start out at 000-00-0001 and work up to 999-99-9999; instead, each section of the number has its own significance. In order to understand why internet criminals are so interested in stealing these digits, you need to know how the SSN works. Let’s take a look at what these nine digits mean.
The First Three Digits Of Your Social Security Number
The first three digits are the Area Number. Just like the area code of your phone number places your geographical origin, Area Numbers represent where in the United States the person holding the Social Security Number was either born or received their card. Numbers start small in the eastern part of the United States and go up as you head west. There is no strict accounting for the regions and number assignments; the Area Number is an artifact of a pre-computer age when sorting Social Security files was made much simpler by breaking them down by geographical area first.
The Second Two Digits Of Your Social Security Number
The middle two digits are the Group Number. Group Numbers are assigned as Social Security Numbers are handed out. The Group Numbers are not assigned in a particularly rational order, however. First, the odd numbers from 01 to 09 are issued. Then when those are full, the even numbers from 10 to 98 are used. Once 98 is full, the even numbers from 02 to 08 are issued, and finally, the odd numbers from 11 to 99 are used. The Social Security Administration claims that this was done for “administrative reasons” – I personally think this was designed by a pre-computer attempt to throw a little organized chaos into the process.
The Last Four Digits Of Your Social Security Number
Finally, the last four digits of the number are the Serial Number. Serial Numbers start at 0001 and run all the way up to 9999.
So How Does This Come Together?
The numbers were issued in order as people were born or became naturalized citizens of the United States. Almost all of the Area Numbers were assigned at the outset of the system’s organization. Then in each Area, the Group Numbers were issued at a quicker or slower pace depending on how many people were being born in that Area. And, of course, the Serial Numbers filled up one by one for each Group Number.
For example, someone who got their Social Security card in the state of Oklahoma could have an Area Number of 442. If that person was born in the late 1960s, then the Oklahoma area numbers were up to Group 84. So that person’s Social Security Number would be something like 442-84-XXXX, where XXXX is whatever serial number the Social Security Office was up to when the person was issued their card.
Today, people generally get a Social Security Number at birth, but in the 20th century, people would wait until they got their first job to get a number, usually sometime in their teenage years.
Although it was never intended to be the sole or primary identifying number for each citizen, through inertia and by virtue of the fact that it is the one number that just about every citizen is issued, it has become the de-facto identity number of Americans. This is convenient, in that most all of us have a Social Security Number, and it’s easy to remember because of the group breakout.
But It’s Also Highly Inconvenient For Two Reasons.
One, it’s a really easy number to steal, and once someone’s number has been stolen, crooks can do all kinds of diabolical things. The second reason is that the supply of Social Security Numbers is finite. There are just under a billion possible Social Security Number combinations in theory, and in practice, there are significantly fewer.
Large numbers of potential Area Numbers are not assigned, and so those enormous blocks of Social Security Numbers are unavailable. Those Area Numbers could be brought into service, but that in turn would (almost ironically) confuse many millions of lines of computer code, written with the assumption that the Area Numbers had all been assigned and that any Social Security Number belonging to a null Area Number must itself be invalid.
The Social Security Administration has already taken steps to mitigate this issue. Starting in 2011, Social Security Numbers began to be issued with random numbers, rather than strictly adhering to the Area Number and Group Number system. This smooths the distribution of numbers and moves the date when we run out of numbers into the future by at least a few years.
As of 2019, about 450 million Social Security Numbers have been issued, out of the one billion possible numbers. We don’t yet know what will happen when we run out of Social Security Numbers; it would be relatively easy to add another digit to the number, and it would also be possible to start recycling the Social Security Numbers of people who are deceased. That would be its own computer software nightmare, however, as the computer systems of banks, insurance agencies, and tax records resurrect long-deceased Americans via their SSN.
What If Someone Steals My Social Security Number?
All of this is of course very interesting, but let’s bring it back to the point of this article: what if some bad guy steals, obtains, guesses at, or otherwise gets hold of your Social Security Number? As it happens, all kinds of bad things!
With your Social Security Number, a crook can apply for credit cards in your name, which will be a mess for you to clean up once they fail to make payments after maxing out the card. Worse yet, they could use your Social Security Number to get a job, causing incredible confusion to your tax account and your Social Security account once their employer files taxes. Speaking of which, a crook could also file taxes in your name – and won’t the IRS be delighted to help you straighten that out… after you press 1, press 3, and please hold for the next available representative.
Because you have to have a Social Security Number to get a job in the United States (at least, any job above the table), crooks are very fond of stealing SSNs specifically for the purpose of selling them to people who do not already have permission to work in the United States, so that those people can get a job. Nothing wrong with people getting jobs, of course, but if they are using your Social Security Number, it can cause untold confusion and issues with your taxes and your Social Security benefits. You could even LOSE your Social Security benefits – and that can be hundreds of thousands of dollars.
As you can see, it is very important for you to be able to tell whether someone is using your Social Security Number without your permission. In this article, I will show you several methods of detecting whether your Social Security Number has been compromised.
Social Security Fraud: The Signs
The first thing to ask yourself is: how could someone have gotten my Social Security Number? For example, if you lost your Social Security card in a wallet, or if you know that your credit file (including your SSN) was exposed in a data breach on a website, then you already know that your information may have leaked. If you don’t know of any leak, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible that someone has your SSN – but if you DO know of a leak, you know that there’s a definite possibility that someone does.
How To Find Out If Your Social Security Number Is Being Used:
- Calls or letters from creditors or collection agents for debts you don’t remember or recognize
- Banks or credit card companies following up on payment arrangements or credit confirmation letters for loans that you did not take out
- A sudden unexplained change (either positive OR negative) in your credit score
- Errors when attempting to file income tax with the IRS
- Updated Social Security status reports that show an incorrect level of salary or hours of employment for a quarter
- Bills or financial mail not showing up in your mailbox – This means the thief has redirected this mail to their address
- Unauthorized transactions on your bank account or credit cards
- You get tax documents such as tax transcripts from the IRS that you did not request
- You receive a tax refund before you’ve even filed your taxes – the thief was hoping to steal it out of your mailbox
- Mail goes missing because the thief is stealing it from your mailbox
- Your employer informs you there is a problem with your Social Security Number when they are doing their paperwork and tax filings
- You get two-factor authorization requests that you did not submit
- You see small “test charges” on your credit or debit accounts
- You start getting advertisements for high-end items like cars, boats, and home improvement loans because there has been high-ticket activity on your accounts that you don’t recognize
Some of these signs are not infallible – they could be the result of clerical error or the normal operation of the system. For example, your credit score might go up because you paid all your bills this month, and you may get a flyer for a home improvement loan because a lender is sending them out to everybody. The best course of action is to follow up on anything unusual or abnormal that happens on your accounts so that you can figure out why the event occurred. If you can’t run down a cause, it’s a good sign that your Social Security Number has been compromised.
Directly Check Your Social Security Number
There are three ways to directly check for activity relating to your Social Security Number.
Get a Social Security Statement
The Social Security Administration maintains an online service that lets you find out what you have paid into Social Security, how many hours of work your employers have reported each quarter, and what your expected benefits would be if you were to retire or go on disability in the near future. By requesting your Social Security statement, you can check these figures against your last statement and against what paid work you have been doing recently, to quickly see if someone else has been logging hours to your Social Security account.
You may think that would be wonderful since the worker reporting hours to your Social Security account is moving you closer to vesting your Social Security benefit, but in fact, you can have your expected Social Security payments greatly reduced if someone is reporting low-wage labor to your account. So you want to clear up any double-dipping of your Social Security account.
Requesting your statement is straightforward. You will need to create a “my Social Security” account if you don’t already have one. You can access the sign-in/account creation page here. Once logged in, you can request a Social Security statement to print out from your account. If you prefer a low-tech approach, you can fill out a request form and mail it in, and get a statement mailed to you in 4 to 6 weeks.
Get a Tax Transcript
Another way of detecting activity on your Social Security number is to request your most recent tax transcript. If someone has filed tax documents using your Social Security Number, the transcript will show activity that you know you didn’t originate, and you’ll have a definite answer.
Getting your most recent tax transcript is quite simple. Just use the tax transcript tool on the IRS website. You can also call the IRS and request one directly at 1-800-908-9946. Or you can print and mail in Form 4506-T to request transcripts for your various tax documents by mail.
Check Your Credit Report
The Social Security Administration can tell you if someone is working on your SSN and the IRS can tell you if someone is filing taxes on it, but only your credit agencies can tell you if someone is using your SSN to acquire and use credit in your name. There are three major credit reporting agencies in the United States: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. They each have slightly different methodologies and scoring programs, but they all more or less provide the same service.
You are entitled to a free copy of your credit report every 12 months (you should be getting them every year anyway because they are your lifeline to good credit). By contacting each service and requesting your report, you can immediately spot any suspicious activity on your credit accounts. Look for credit card applications, loan applications, and any debt you don’t recognize.
Requesting your reports is simple:
- Equifax: 1-800-525-6285 – equifax.com
- Experian: 1-888-397-3742 – experian.com
- TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289 – transunion.com
You may also want to subscribe to one of the many monthly update services which will give you a free credit report each month, basically in exchange for looking at the occasional advertisement. CreditKarma is a reputable service, and if you sign up for it (or one of the many others doing the same thing) you can keep a monthly eye on your credit score and your credit history, making it very difficult for an identity thief to put one over you in the long run.
Someone’s Got Your Number – What Can You Do?
Figuring out that someone has your Social Security Number is one thing. Fixing the problem is another. If you think someone is using your Social Security Number, you need to move quickly. You have four things you need to do. You need to contact the Federal Trade Commission to report identity theft, contact the credit reference agencies to report the theft, contact the Social Security Administration, and contact your local police.
- The FTC is at 1-877-438-4338 or https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/. There is a form to complete to report identity theft.
- Contact the three credit reference agencies and ask them to place a freeze on your credit report. This will prevent any new applications being created in your name. This will stop more debt from piling up.
- Contact the SSA on 1-800-269-0271 or Log on to the IRS Identity Protection website to alert them and prevent any tax returns from being filed in your name.
- Optionally, but recommended, alert the Internet Crime Complaints Center at http://www.ic3.gov/. They alert other agencies that your SSN has been compromised.
Once all that has been done, report the crime to your local police. If you know how the theft took place, for example, you had your wallet stolen, the police will want to know where the theft would have happened, and what transpired.
If this article has inspired a little bit of paranoia, good. Identity theft is a serious crime, but when caught, you can prevent it from becoming a serious problem for you. Regularly go through your credit report to identify any activity you don’t recognize. If you do see something strange, don’t panic: contact each organization directly through their customer services helpline. Explain the situation and work with them to sort out what has happened and what to do next. Do this for all instances where fraudulent activity has occurred on your account.
If someone else is using your Social Security Number, it is absolutely crucial to act quickly. Any delay can mean more debt and another lender you have to work with to get things sorted out. The longer a fraud has been going on, the less likely you are to get an expeditious reversal of the charges from the merchants and vendors that the thief has run up accounts with. Fortunately, most institutions are well-practiced in handling identity theft and have teams and processes in place to help. It will take time and a lot of work on your part, but it is possible to get yourself back to the position you were in before the theft happened.
Managing Your Credit Accounts Can Be A Task. We’ve Got Resources That Can Help!
Here’s our guide to automatically paying off your credit cards every month.
If you take a lot of Ubers, you’ll want to see our tutorial on using Uber without a credit card.
You can also get and use an Apple ID without a credit card.
Here’s a handy walkthrough to storing your credit cards on an iCloud keychain.
Want more info on what makes your credit card tick? Check out our guide to what the numbers on your credit card mean.