Practically every adult in the U.S. knows someone who has had their identity stolen, if they have not been a victim themselves, which is plenty likely. In fact, according to the Federal Trade Commission, approximately 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year. And many of these crimes rely on one essential piece of information: your social security number. By stealing your SSN, criminals can commit financial fraud, open new lines of credit, empty your accounts, and even rack up medical bills under your name. ID theft victims are then left drained, scrambling to rebuild their financial and emotional lives. Even worse, you often don’t know your SSN has been stolen until it’s too late. This means protecting your SSN and other private information in the digital era is more important than ever.
Identity theft is one of the largest growing crimes in America, says the Social Security Administration. As more and more information moves online, criminals have developed a variety of methods to steal your information. Though traditional criminals may steal bills or credit card statements from your trash, bribe crooked employees for info, or physically take documents from you, new technologies help sophisticated cybercriminals gain access through your computer. Through techniques such as phishing emails claiming to be legitimate companies or contacts that convince you to reveal your SSN, siphoning off info from an unsecured website, or hacking into databases, cybercriminals are using any and every trick to steal your SSN from afar.
And it’s not just adults who are victims. In September 2011, the Office of the Inspector General held a field hearing to discuss the increasing occurrence of children’s SSNs being stolen for identity theft, citing FTC estimates that more than 140,000 U.S. children are victims of identity theft each year. Even more disturbing, in 2009, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that public information easily available from government sources, commercial databases, or online social networks can be used to predict 8.5 percent of social security numbers of people born between 1989 and 2003, due to statistical patterns in the assigning.
With the ongoing popularity of social networks and other platforms where information is widely distributed, ID theft is becoming more widespread than ever. In attempt to curb the theft of SSNs, President Obama signed the Social Security Number Protection Act of 2010 last year, which prohibits the printing of SSNs on government checks and prohibits prisoners from having access to SSNs. Still, one of the biggest root causes of the alarming increase in SSN theft is the practice of using SSNs as identifiers and passwords. In response, the SSA has begun to encourage the use of alternate identifiers in place of SSNs for schools, businesses, and other organizations. However, until there is a uniform policy shift, individuals must be wary of who, where, and how they share their SSN and other important information.
To protect your SSN, the OIG recommends Americans keep their social security cards in a safe place, shred personal documents, be aware of phishing schemes, protect personal computers with a two-way firewall and anti-virus software, monitor bank statements and credit reports regularly, and report any suspicious activity to the FTC and Internet Crime Complaint Center. For more information on protecting your online identity, visit the Identity Theft Resource Center.