Identity theft thrives in the U.S. in part because Americans feel obligated to provide their Social Security number (SSN) for many types of interactions. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to thwart identity thieves.

SSNs were never intended to be a "one size fits all" primary ID, but in many ways, that's exactly what has happened. Ultimately, it falls on individuals to protect their own Social Security number.

Key Takeaways

  • To protect your SSN, start by controlling who gets it. The fewer places to track, the better.
  • Don't give your number out just because someone asks.
  • Validate the reason and the authority first, then make sure to ask questions about how your number will be stored, treated, shared, and protected.
  • 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 SSN actually needs it. Generally speaking, if an entity reports information about you to the Internal Revenue Service, you probably have to supply your Social Security number. This includes your employer, banks/lenders, the U.S. Treasury for savings bonds, state or welfare departments, state unemployment insurance departments, and workers' compensation.

Although other institutions and businesses have the right to ask for your number, they don’t need it.

As of Jan. 1, 2020, Medicare no longer uses your Social Security number for identification. Instead, you should have been issued a new Medicare Beneficiary Identifier (MBI), which you should protect from thieves as well.

How to Protect Your Social Security Number

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

1. Offer an Alternative Form of ID

If a business or 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 (bills), or even a student ID from a college or university.         

2. Ask Why and How the SSN 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 by 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 a deposit or additional fees.

3. Leave Your Card at Home

Don't carry your 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 shredder at a discount or office supply store 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 email messages can be intercepted and read in transmission. 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

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 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 alerts 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 www.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. Use an Identity Protection Service

You can register with (and pay for) an identity protection service such as LifeLock, IdentityForce, or Identity Guard. Such services provide identity insurance—for a fee that typically starts around $10 per month. Banks and credit unions also have packages they sell to customers, as do major credit rating agencies such as Experian and TransUnion.    

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've Been Scammed

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

Special COVID-19 Information

All Social Security offices are closed for in-person service during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. You are urged to use the SSA's online services or Field Office Locator to obtain the address and phone number of the nearest office. You may also call the SSA national 800 number: 1-800-772-1213 for help.

1. Contact the Social Security Administration (SSA)

The easiest way to contact Social Security is online (see above). The Field Office Locator (also above) will provide the phone number of the nearest SSA office, along with office hours, walk-in times (if available), and answers to frequently asked questions. Finally, the national toll-free number is1-800-772-1213.

2. Contact Medicare If Your MBI Has Been Stolen

Although Medicare has replaced the use of your Social Security number with a new Medicare Beneficiary Identifier (MBI) that number is also subject to theft and use to commit Medicare fraud. If you believe your MBI has been compromised, contact Medicare for guidance.

3. Request a Review of Your Social Security Earnings

On rare occasions, more than one person uses the same Social Security number accidentally through a typo or misremembering when filling out paperwork. This can also be 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 my E-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 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

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 FTC; and 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 your 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 for yourself. 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 FBI provides a convenient avenue to report suspected criminal or illegal civil acts at the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). This site lets you report the crime and 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 feel you've done everything you can and someone is still using your Social Security number, you may need to request the assignment of a new number from SSA.

You cannot obtain a new Social Security number:

  • If there is no evidence someone is using your current number.
  • To avoid the consequences of a bankruptcy filing.
  • If you intend to avoid the law or your legal responsibility.

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. SSA Pub. 05-10002 - Your Social Security Number and Card has information about the application process.

Realize that a new Social Security number may not solve all your problems. Think about all the government agencies (IRS, state motor vehicle agency), banks, credit reporting companies 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.