I just received a letter from a reader that sent chills up my spine. It brought back vivid memories of having my purse stolen while traveling alone in a big strange city. The rental car keys, my cash, my one and only credit card, hotel key—everything I needed to keep going was in that bag.
There was one thing that I was not carrying. My Social Security card was safe at home. As it turned out, and thankfully, everything important in the bag was relatively easily cancelled and replaced.
Dear Mary: About a month ago my wallet was stolen out of my handbag while in the supermarket. I filed a police report, but they advised me it’s not likely I will ever get my wallet back or its contents. I reported this to my bank and credit-card company. Those accounts were closed and reopened with new account numbers. But I am sick with worry because my Social Security card was in the wallet. I don’t know what to do. What can I do? I so appreciate any guidance that will help give me some peace of mind. I’ve learned my lesson to never carry that with me. Just wish I’d been smarter sooner. Marissa
Dear Marissa: I am so sorry to hear about this. But worry is the wrong response because that is totally unproductive. Worry doesn’t fix anything. Before I give you the advice that will help restore your peace of mind, I think it’s important that all of us understand that our Social Security numbers are much different than, say, a credit or debit card.
A Social Security number (SSN) is the single most important piece of government-issued identification an American citizen has. It is the most valuable piece of identification that cyber criminals can get their hands on. A valid SSN can be sold to undocumented workers or to people trying to hide their true identities.
A stolen SSN allows the thief—or those to whom he or she sells it—to do almost everything that you or I can do with our legitimate SSNs. By assuming a real person’s name and SSN, a thief can steal property and money from that person.
This is so very serious because if an identity thief uses your name and SSN to do criminal acts, the police are going to come looking for you, not that thief.
You can close a credit-card account or get your debit-card reissued if it is compromised, and you did. That’s good. The problem is you cannot close your SSN.
Even if, by some miracle, you were to get that card back, you must assume that the number itself has been stolen. And now here comes my advice: You can take control of this situation in one of two ways:
FIRST OPTION. You can join a trusted and reputable identity-theft protection service like Lifelock. I, my family and my staff are all members of Lifelock. I believe in this service because I get to see it in action, almost daily.
Faithful readers may recall from a past column that one of my staff members, Max, has been contending with identity theft since he was a teenager. His SSN was stolen more than a decade ago. Hundreds of people have attempted to use his name and SSN to apply for jobs, file for his tax refunds, sign up for health insurance, apply for passports and get credit. Max’s SSN is still out there in the pockets of untold thousands of people. But Max no longer worries about it. He has peace of mind because Lifelock works for him 24/7, moving into action the moment his SSN is ever used in any kind of application. People try to use it but they’re stopped dead in their tracts. I’ve seen the alerts and its amazing.
In just the past week Max has received three alerts from Lifelock, with information on three people trying to open credit-card accounts using his SSN. Once Max responds that this is not him using his SSN, Lifelock puts a stop to these applications immediately before the thugs can even complete the first step.
SECOND OPTION. You can take the steps that follow yourself, steps that are necessary to manage your compromised SSN. If you choose this route, you need to get busy.
- Contact one of the three major credit-reporting bureau Equifax (888-766-0008), TransUnion (800-916-8800), or Experian (888-397-3742) to place a fraud alert on your credit file. That bureau will contact the other two. Make sure that you renew the fraud alert every 90 days until you’re satisfied the matter has been settled. It could take years.
- Tell each of the three bureaus that your SSN has been stolen. They’ll give you free copies of your current credit reports. Go over these reports looking for unfamiliar accounts and unknown inquiries from companies.
- Contact the Social Security Administration to get a replacement of your SSN card.
- Report the theft of the SSN to the IRS. Call 800-908-4490 to do this. That will prevent tax-fraud thieves from filing tax returns in your name—and collecting your tax refund.
- File an identity-theft report with your local police. The police report will be necessary to help clear your records and your name in the future.
- Keep track of, record, report and close all fraudulent accounts by contacting both the companies holding the accounts and the credit-reporting agencies. This will keep your credit as clean as possible going forward.
If several years pass after the theft of your SSN, and the problems arising from the theft continue, you may want to consider applying for a new SSN. But before you do, there are several things to consider: It’s not easy. In fact it is nearly impossible, that’s how rare it is. Even if the administration grants you a new SSN, your old SSN will never go away completely. The Administration never invalidates an SSN once it’s been used.
I wish you well, Marissa. Whichever way you choose to go with this, do it today. Time is of the essence.