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Make sure you consistently review your financial statements to spot fraudulent activity. Sean Anthony Eddy/Getty Images Plus
I've Always Wondered ...

What should you do if your Social Security number is stolen?

Janet Nguyen May 10, 2024
Make sure you consistently review your financial statements to spot fraudulent activity. Sean Anthony Eddy/Getty Images Plus

This is just one of the stories from our “I’ve Always Wondered” series, where we tackle all of your questions about the world of business, no matter how big or small. Ever wondered if recycling is worth it? Or how store brands stack up against name brands? Check out more from the series here.

Eric Baldwin asks: 

I’ve been hesitant to give my Social Security number when requested. Recently, I was offered a store credit card for store discounts. I declined because the store wanted my Social Security number. Was I overreacting or being too protective of my Social Security number?

In addition, what can I do to protect myself if someone gets my Social Security number?

If you’re applying for a credit card, filing taxes or trying to obtain a loan, you’ll have to share your Social Security number, the nine-digit ID issued by the U.S. government.

But if you’re apprehensive about sharing that number with a company, like Eric, you’re not alone.

Identity theft experts said Eric wasn’t overreacting in the slightest.

“I say, ‘Good job,’” said Eva Velasquez, the president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit that provides free assistance to those who have had their identity stolen or compromised. 

The only way you can guarantee your personal information will be protected is by not providing it, Velasquez said. 

“There’s always going to be a level of inherent risk. But I just tell people to weigh that risk against the benefit that they’re getting,” Velasquez said. “I do think it’s a very personal decision.”

Marketplace reached out to several stores that require Social Security numbers on their credit card applications — including Target, Walmart, Lowe’s, Macy’s and Home Depot — for comment on how they safeguard customer information. A Macy’s spokesperson stated that “the safety of our customers and colleagues is very important,” and that it does have “information security measures in place to protect their confidential information,” without specifying further. 

The Home Depot spokesperson referred Marketplace to Citibank, which manages the company’s cards. Citibank and the other companies did not respond by publication time. 

Precautions you and companies should take

If a company is offering a card that asks for a Social Security number, it should direct customers to a secure website where they can fill out a credit card application on their own time through a secure website, not at the point of sale, said Matt Loker, a consumer attorney who founded the firm Loker Law. Companies could provide a QR code that when scanned, would take consumers to that website, he added. 

But businesses want customers to fill out an application at the store, where they are more likely to finish it, said Loker, who’s also a professor of contracts at San Luis Obispo College of Law.

Here are some red flags to look out for when asked for your Social Security number: 

  • Don’t give your Social Security number aloud to a store employee, Loker said. 
  • Avoid unsolicited credit card offers, including those sent via direct message on social media, text or email that say you qualify a card or refer you to a deal from a financial institution, Velasquez said. 
  • If you choose to pursue an unsolicited offer, “go directly to the known website for that financial institution or card issuer,” Velasquez said. 
  • If a company asks you for your Social Security number, ask why it’s needed, said John Breyault, vice president of public policy, telecommunications and fraud at the National Consumers League and an Identity Theft Resource Center board member.

To safeguard your personal information online, Velasquez recommends the following: 

  • Use strong and unique passwords across different accounts. 
  • Enable multifactor authentication, a multistep login process, on your accounts.
  • Set up an alert system to notify you when your credit card is being used for financial transactions above a certain dollar amount. Make it a low amount, even if that means you’ll get a lot of alerts. Major banks have straightforward instructions on their websites explaining how you can set these up.
  • Review your statements, at least monthly, so that you can dispute charges you didn’t make. Learn the time frames for disputing charges. 

What to do if someone uses your Social Security number

The unfortunate truth is your Social Security number is likely already on the dark web.

“I generally tell people to kind of operate under the assumption that their Social Security number has been compromised,” Velasquez said. “And I say that because of the state of data breaches in this country. It really would be the rare individual whose number isn’t compromised.”

Velasquez advises freezing your credit at the three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — even if you don’t suspect your Social Security number has been stolen.  

“It does limit your options of making those in-the-moment decisions in a store, but that’s OK. You will have to plan a little bit when you want to open new lines of credit,” Velasquez said. 

And if you’re a parent, freeze your children’s credit, Loker said.  

“Minor fraud is just rampant right now,” Loker said. “Parents aren’t watching their kids’ credit because they’re a kid, they can’t legally have a credit card.” 

Fraudsters are opening financial accounts using minors’ names and Social Security numbers. When the children become adults and try to open a credit card, they discover they have a “massive credit history that’s full of delinquent information,” Loker added. 

Some people may want to change their Social Security number if they find out it’s been stolen. But it’s very rare to get that request approved. People who face physical threats rather than financial ones are more likely to get approval, Velasquez said. Changing a number could also be “an absolute mess,” because you’d have to rebuild your credit history, she said.

If you have questions about financial fraud and identity theft or need help, IdentityTheft.gov, a Federal Trade Commission site, and the Identity Theft Resource Center are free resources. 

“I think there’s a lot of embarrassment and shame, both from people who feel, ‘I should know this and I don’t,’ or from people who’ve been victimized and they somehow feel like they’re at fault,” Velasquez said. “And I just always want to encourage people to seek help when they need it.” 

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