Identity theft thrives in the United States in part because Americans are asked to provide their Social Security number (SSN) in many types of interactions. SSNs were never intended to be a "one size fits all" primary ID, but in many ways, that's exactly what has happened. Fortunately, there are a variety of ways for individuals to protect their Social Security number from identity thieves.

Key Takeaways

  • To protect your Social Security number, start by controlling who gets it. The fewer places that have it, the better.
  • Don't give your number out just because someone asks.
  • Before giving it out, ask why they need it and how they will protect it.
  • If you believe your number has been compromised, contact Social Security for guidance.

When to Provide Your Social Security Number

Not everyone who requests your Social Security number actually needs it. Generally speaking, if an entity reports information about you to the Internal Revenue Service, you probably have to supply your SSN. This includes your employer, banks/lenders, the U.S. Treasury for savings bonds, and state unemployment insurance and workers' compensation offices.

Although other institutions and businesses have the right to ask for your number, they often don’t need it and you aren't legally required to provide it.

As of Jan. 1, 2020, Medicare no longer uses Social Security numbers for identification. Instead, Medicare recipients receive a Medicare Beneficiary Identifier (MBI)—a unique series of numbers and letters that they should also try to protect from identity thieves.

How to Protect Your Social Security Number

Here are 10 things you can do to safeguard your SSN:

1. Offer an Alternative Form of ID

If a business or other organization asks for your Social Security number, offer your driver’s license number instead. Other alternative forms of ID include a passport, proof of current and previous address (such as utility bills), or even a student ID from a college or university.         

2. Ask Why They Want It and How It Will Be Handled

If the business insists, ask questions. You have a right to know why it’s necessary to provide your SSN and how it will be handled. Ask questions such as:

  • Why is having my Social Security number necessary?
  • With whom will you share my number if I provide it?
  • How will my number be stored?
  • Do you have a privacy policy, and may I see it?
  • Will you cover my liability or losses if my number is stolen or compromised?

Unfortunately, if you are asked to provide your SSN to a business or institution that doesn't need it and you say no, it can refuse to provide services to you or put conditions on the service—such as requiring a deposit or additional fees.

3. Leave Your Card at Home

Don't carry your Social Security card around with you in your wallet or purse. Don't enter it into your phone, laptop, or other devices. It would be rare for you to need your card. Typically, reciting the number is all that’s required. Keep the number in your head and the card locked up at home.    

4. Shred Mail and Documents with Personal Details

Discarded mail and documents are a magnet for identity thieves. Don’t just throw out papers that contain personal details such as your Social Security number. Get a paper shredder and use it on a regular basis. While you're at it, don't leave mail in an outside mailbox for long periods. Stealing mail is another way thieves can make off with your information.    

5. Don't Use Your SSN as a Password

Don't use the whole Social Security number—or part of it—as a password. The password file can be stolen and decrypted, or someone can just watch you type it in from over your shoulder.

6. Don't Send Your SSN via an Electronic Device

Never type your Social Security number into an email or instant message and send it. The majority of such messages can be intercepted and read. Also, don't leave a voicemail that includes your SSN. If you need to contact someone and give them your number, it's best to do it in person. The second best way is to reach them on the phone and do it "live."

7. Don't Give It Out to Strangers

You should never provide your SSN to someone you don’t know who calls you on the phone and requests it. This same warning applies to unsolicited emails and any forms you fill out on the internet. In general, don’t give your SSN to anyone unless you are absolutely certain they have a reason and a right to have it.

8. Monitor Your Bank and Credit Card Accounts

Keep close tabs on your bank and credit card balances. This is one way to make sure your SSN and identity have not been compromised. Many banks let you sign up for account alerts. They will send you text messages or call you if transactions exceed a certain amount or if someone tries to use your Social Security number to access your account.    

Check your credit score on a regular basis at AnnualCreditReport.com. You can do this once a year for free. If the Social Security Administration (SSA) is still sending you an annual statement detailing your earnings, and it looks out of whack, someone might be using your number for employment purposes. You can register to get statements at the SSA website.

9. Consider an Identity Protection Service

You can register with (and pay for) an identity protection service such as LifeLock, IdentityForce, or Identity Guard. Such companies charges fees that typically start around $10 a month. Banks and credit unions also have packages they sell to customers, as do major credit rating agencies such as Experian and TransUnion. Many of the best credit monitoring services also offer identity protection tools and services.

10. Don't Forget to Protect Your Child's SSN

While you are protecting your own Social Security number, make sure you are equally watchful about your children's numbers. This is most often an issue at the doctor’s office. Fortunately, most medical facilities are more than happy to use an insurance account number instead of your SSN or your child's.

Steps to Take If You Think You've Been Scammed

The Social Security Administration publishes a useful booklet called "Identity Theft and Your Social Security Number." In addition to basic protection tips, it provides information about what you should do if you believe your identity and SSN have been stolen or compromised.

Special COVID-19 Information

Social Security closed all of its offices for in-person services in March 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. SSA's online services, however, remain available. 

1. Contact the Social Security Administration (SSA)

The easiest way to contact Social Security is online (see above). SSA also has a national toll-free phone number, 1-800-772-1213.

2. Contact Medicare If Your MBI Has Been Stolen

Although Medicare has stopped using Social Security numbers and replaced them with a Medicare Beneficiary Identifier (MBI), it is also subject to theft and can be used to commit Medicare fraud. If you have an MBI and believe it has been compromised, contact Medicare for guidance.

3. Request a Review of Your Social Security Earnings

On rare occasions, more than one person may use the same Social Security number accidentally through a typo or misremembering when filling out paperwork. This can also happen on purpose if someone uses your number to get a job. Contact Social Security to request an earnings review (or do it yourself with an online account).

4. Check Employer Verifications at My E-Verify

You can also check for the names of employers who have verified your eligibility to work in the U.S. if they went through the Department of Homeland Security E-Verify system. To do that, go to the myE-Verify webpage. If you see an employer whose name you do not recognize, someone else may be using your number to work in the U.S. The site also has a Self-Lock feature that lets you place a lock on your Social Security number.

5. Visit IdentityTheft.gov to Get a Recovery Plan

You can visit IdentityTheft.gov to report identity theft and, more importantly, set up a recovery plan. IdentityTheft.gov will guide you through a four-step process that includes:

1. Calling companies where you suspect fraud has occurred.

2. Placing a fraud alert and obtaining your credit reports.

3. Reporting the identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission.

4. Filing a report with your local police department (optional). You can also call 1-877-IDTHEFT (1-877-438-4338) to begin the process.

6. Contact the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)

You may also want to contact the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) if you suspect an identity thief has filed a tax return in your name to get a refund. The IRS should also be on your list of contacts if you suspect someone is using your number for work purposes. Otherwise, the IRS could think you failed to report income when you file your own tax return. Use the IRS Identity Theft Central website or call 1-800-908-4490.

7. File an Online Complaint with the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3)

The Federal Bureau of Investigation provides a convenient avenue to report suspected criminal or illegal civil acts at the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). Once you report a crime, the site then alerts appropriate law enforcement or regulatory agencies that would have jurisdiction over the matter.

8. Apply for a New Social Security Number as a Last Resort

If you believe you've done everything you can and someone is still using your Social Security number, you may need to request a new number from the SSA.

If you decide to apply for a new number, you will need to prove your identity, age, and U.S. citizenship or immigration status. You will also need to provide evidence that someone is using your old number. The SSA booklet "Your Social Security Number and Card" explains the application process.

Bear in mind that a new Social Security number may not solve all your problems. Think about all the government agencies, banks, credit reporting companies, and others that already have and use your old number.

Once you receive a new Social Security number, do not use your old number again. Make sure your new number is reported to all agencies that will need it and that those agencies know you no longer use your old number.