A reader, Hank, wrote to us concerned about a friend who had recognized a collection scam when he got an email, but was worried because the scammer had his friend’s Social Security number. Here’s what he told us:
I just received a phone call from a friend of mine. He received an email … (that) included his Social Security Number (That’s the scary part!) in which they demanded over $700 and said legal fees would be over $9,000 if he didn’t pay the $700 immediately. He knows it’s a scam, but he’s concerned of course about them having his Social Security number, wondering how they got it, and if there could be any damage from them having it.
First, it’s impossible to know for certain how they obtained his Social Security number. One way might have been if the friend had applied online to a payday lender. In some cases the “applications” are really a vehicle for an identity thief fishing for information. In other cases, data breaches, like last week’s Anthem breach, can expose many customers’ Social Security numbers. The fact is, lots of personal data, including Social Security numbers, is regularly bought and sold by criminals.
Although it makes sense to try hard to protect your personal data, there is a risk that it could be exposed, and that leaves you — and the rest of us — at risk for identity theft. And it also means that even if a debt collector has your Social Security number, you still cannot assume that the debt is legitimate.
So what can you do if you think — or know — someone has your Social Security number when they shouldn’t? First, get your free annual credit reports. Look for any inquiries or accounts you do not recognize — which may suggest that your name and Social Security number have been used by someone else to get credit. Also check addresses to be sure you recognize all of them. If you see errors, dispute them with each credit bureau.
How to Detect or Stop Misuse of Your Number
You can also consider putting a fraud alert on your credit files. A fraud alert lets any potential creditor know they should take additional steps to verify your identity. Fraud alerts last 90 days — and this is one instance where the credit bureaus share information with each other, so one notification takes care of all three. Fraud victims are entitled to an additional free copy of their credit reports.
It is also a good idea to keep tabs on your credit scores. Some credit cards now send them with monthly statements, though if you are tracking them this way, be sure you use the same score every time — different scoring models can yield different scores. You can also check your own credit scores for free every month on Credit.com. A big, unexplained swing there can be a sign of fraud, and the sooner you detect it, the better.
Hank’s friend may want to spring for a paid credit monitoring service as well. There are monthly services that charge a fee to keep tabs on any suspicious activity involving your personal information, and they can help make you aware that someone is using your Social Security number even more quickly. (Sometimes a year of such monitoring is offered for free after a breach, though that won’t help much if thieves wait until after a year to use your data.)
Another option is to freeze your credit. This is the most aggressive way to stop someone from using your Social Security number to obtain credit, but it will also make it more difficult for you to apply for credit, and you may not be able to monitor your scores. It is a serious step and is usually not recommended unless you know your credit information is being misused by a thief. Unless you are a fraud victim and have filed a police report, there is usually a fee for freezing and unfreezing a credit report.
Speaking of police reports, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for this consumer to file one. If his information is misused by these scammers or someone else to commit identity theft, it can be helpful to have that on record.
It is wise for the rest of us to behave as if a scammer had our Social Security number. Given how often data breaches happen these days, one just might — and carefully monitoring credit can help you detect and minimize the damage.
More on Identity Theft:
- How Can You Tell If Your Identity Has Been Stolen?
- What Should I Do If I’m a Victim of Identity Theft?
- How Credit Impacts Your Day-to-Day Life