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How to Protect Your Social Security Number After a Hack

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If you clicked here just to confirm that you have nothing to worry about, sorry – there’s plenty to worry about. This is the part in the movie when the doctor takes off her mask and gloves with a defeated sigh and delivers the dreaded news: something went horribly wrong — and we’re all potentially the patient she’s talking about.

You should have already done what I am about to tell you because there’s a good chance your Social Security number has been compromised.

It’s Not About Breaches

Well, it is — but it’s not ONLY about breaches.

But first, about those breaches… More than 21 million Social Security numbers were exposed in the Office of Personnel Management (effectively the HR Department for the U.S. Government) compromise alone. Add Anthem, Premera, and Excellus and the tally of vulnerable numbers reaches more than 120 million, and that’s not including the countless smaller, documented breaches involving SSNs that have occurred over the past five years or so.

But like I said, it’s not only about breaches. Think of all the places that have your Social Security number that may not have the extra security protections of a government agency (even when that government protection is at most pretty pathetic). We’re talking about family doctors, schools, colleges, travel agents, lawyers, accountants (we both know the list is infinitely longer) and the measures taken to ensure that your SSN is not stolen are often minimal to non-existent.

When the identity theft lottery hits you, the evening news won’t be at your doorstep waiting with bated breath to hear whether or not you’re going to Disneyland. You will be miserable. The best time to act is before you are hit by identity-related crime.

Here are some tips to better protect and monitor your credit, or contain the damage in the event you detect you are having an issue.

1. Check Your Credit At Least Once a Year

You are entitled to get a free copy of your credit report from each of the credit reporting agencies at AnnualCreditReport.com. (You can also view a free credit report summary, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.) Review it carefully for inaccurate, incomplete or unfamiliar information. If you see something that doesn’t look right, contact the fraud department of one of the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, TransUnion or Experian) and ask for a fraud alert to be added to your credit file. You may also want to consider a credit freeze to make sure no one (including you) can access and use your credit—unless thawed by a password or PIN. Bear in mind, you need only contact one bureau for a fraud alert, but you will have to contact each bureau to set up a credit freeze

2. Look Into Credit Monitoring

Contact your insurance agent, financial services representative or your employer’s HR department to see if they have a program that provides you access to an identity theft services provider. Many organizations have such arrangements, and many offer them free to customers, employees and members as a perk of your relationship.

If this service is unavailable to you, you can consider enrolling in a paid credit and identity-monitoring program. All three reporting agencies as well as a number of third-party resellers offer them.

3. Review Your Annual Social Security Earnings Statement

You’re looking for any suspicious activity—especially more income than you actually earned. If you find any discrepancies, immediately contact the Social Security Administration.

4. Check Your Bank & Credit Card Accounts Daily

Make sure you recognize all the transactions listed. Pay particular attention to small transactions. If you prefer a more laidback approach, which is actually even more effective, sign up for transactional monitoring alerts from your financial services institutions which can alert you to any suspicious activity in your bank, credit union or credit card accounts.

5. Review Your Explanation of Benefits Statements from Your Health Insurer

Look for any red flags like examinations, treatments or procedures that you never received. If you suspect that you are a victim of medical identity theft, immediately contact your medical provider as well as your health insurer—if your insurance was involved.

6. Contact the Authorities

If you suspect that your SSN has been used for tax-related, new account or other fraud, file a police report, then file an identity theft affidavit with the Federal Trade Commission and IRS.

7. Never Carry Your Social Security Card

Also, mask your Medicare ID (your SSN plus a letter); never provide personal information over the phone, via email or text unless you are in control of the interaction (meaning you called them) and never provide sensitive information by email or text. Store all sensitive documents on an encrypted thumb drive and shred paper files that include your SSN.

At the end of the day, it may be too late to stop an identity thief from using your Social Security number. You should assume your number is out there, and start bright and early to make sure you have all your bases covered and are ready for any contingency that comes your way.

Image: KenTannenbaum

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