How to Protect Your Social Security Number and Personal Data
Identity theft is a scary thought, but you can help prevent it by keeping these documents safe.
Contributing Writer at Tally
August 27, 2021
Identity theft and fraud are on the rise and show no signs of slowing. A key way thieves swipe your identity is via personal documents. These documents include anything with your Social Security number or credit card number on them.
Protecting these documents is critical in keeping your identity safe and preventing headaches, including poor credit history, fraudulent accounts and even illegitimate criminal charges that can follow you for years.
Below, we'll cover how to protect your social security number and other personal documents to help you avoid identity theft.
How to protect your Social Security number
Your Social Security number (SSN) is a critical entryway for identity thieves to steal your identity and start racking up debt under your name. With the following tips, you can keep your SSN secure and out of the hands of nefarious actors.
Avoid carrying your Social Security card
Some people carry their Social Security card or SSN around in case they need the number for a job application, to apply for credit or other needs.
Carrying your Social Security card or SSN around puts you at serious risk of identity theft. If you lose the wallet or purse you keep it in and the wrong person picks it up, they now have easy access to your identity.
Instead of carrying your card or your SSN around all the time, commit it to memory or only take it with you when you know you’re going to need it. This will prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.
Refrain from entering your SSN on an unsecured website or email
If a creditor needs your SSN via the internet, never send it in an unsecured manner, such as via email or through an unsecured website.
When visiting a website, look for signs it's secure, such as an "HTTPS" prefix in the URL instead of just "HTTP." Also, look for a locked padlock in the URL bar.
You should also always check a URL for validity, as spoof sites will often use domain names similar to popular sites, such as "Amaz0n.com" instead of "Amazon.com." These sites will often look legitimate and ask you to enter sensitive information, like your SSN, only to steal it.
Finally, never send your SSN via email. This puts you just one hack away from an identity thief getting your info.
Be wary of callers asking for your SSN
When you're applying for credit or doing other financial transactions online, it's not uncommon to give your SSN over the phone. However, if someone calls you out of the blue and asks you to verify your full SSN, ask them what company they are with, and tell them you will call them back.
If you do business with the company, look up its legitimate contact information online and call the company yourself. Explain the phone call you received and verify it was not a scam call. If you verify it was a legitimate call, you're now safe to give your SSN over the phone.
Safely dispose of your SSN
Thieves will go a long way to get their hands on your personal information, including digging through your trash. To avoid a dumpster diver from finding your SSN, don't throw out any whole documents that include it, such as:
Social Security account statements
Old Social Security cards
Instead of throwing out the whole documents, ensure they're illegible by one of several means, including:
Shredding. Using a quality cross-shredder — not a basic strip shredder — shred the documents into nothing more than confetti. If you don't have a shredder, you can use scissors to cut the document into small pieces. If possible, spread the shredded document throughout several trash bags.
Burning. If your local ordinances allow it and you have a burn barrel, you can always burn your sensitive documents. Make sure to inspect the charred remains to ensure all the sensitive information is destroyed.
How to protect your credit cards
Credit cards may not be a direct path to identity fraud like an SSN, but they can be a gateway for the right thief. Plus, anyone who gets ahold of your credit card can start making charges on your card.
Carrying only the cards you need
Avoid carrying every credit card you have with you at all times. Carry only the ones you need at the time and leave the rest at home. This way, if you lose your wallet or purse, or a thief steals it, they only have access to some of your major credit cards.
Watching what sites you give your credit card number to
Like your Social Security number, only enter your credit card number into secure, trusted sites. These include those with an "HTTPS" URL prefix instead of an "HTTP" and a locked padlock in the URL bar.
Also, verify the site you are on has the right URL and isn't a spoofed site. This is especially true when an email directs you to a site to enter your credit card number.
Using care at gas stations
Identity thieves are infamous for installing credit card skimmers on gas pumps. These skimmers look similar to a normal credit card reader, but they store your credit card information for the thief without you knowing.
Prevent this issue by examining the gas pump. Check the tamper-evident tape near the scanner. If this has been peeled off or cut, alert an attendant at the station. Also, grab the scanner and wiggle it — skimmers tend to be loosely installed and wiggle under light pressure.
Avoid storing credit card information on websites
It may be convenient to store credit card information on a website you frequently shop at, but this is also risky. If a hacker gets behind the website's defenses and initiates a data breach, they can steal your credit card information and use it themselves or sell it on the dark web.
Disposing of credit card statements appropriately
Your credit card statements often include your account number, which is sometimes the same as your credit card number. Also, these statements often have much of the information an identity thief needs to call your credit card company and impersonate you.
Avoid this situation by disposing of your credit card statements appropriately by cross-shredding or burning them.
How to catch identity theft
Do you suspect someone got ahold of your information and may have stolen your identity? Here are some ways to monitor your identity and determine if someone stole it.
Watching your credit report
Keep a close eye on your credit reports from all three major credit bureaus — TransUnion, Equifax and Experian — and watch for new accounts opened under your name. If you see an account you don't recognize on your credit history, call the lender or credit card company to find out when and where the account was opened.
If the account is not legitimate, let the lender or credit card company know, place a fraud alert on the account and dispute it through the credit bureaus.
You may have to pay a fee at each credit bureau to stay up to date on your credit report, or you can get a free credit report every year from AnnualCreditReport.com.
If you don't have time to monitor your credit report continually, you can sign up for credit monitoring and get alerts when someone opens a new account under your name.
Monitoring your account balances closely
Watch all your accounts carefully, including bank accounts, credit card accounts, lines of credit and others. Watch for suspicious charges.
If you notice an unfamiliar charge, contact the financial institution and get more information on when and where the charge occurred. If the charge wasn't yours, dispute it. The financial institution will initiate an investigation to determine if this was fraud or if you simply forgot about a legit purchase you made.
Opening every bank and credit card statement
With automatic payments and online banking, it's easy to ignore credit card and bank statements that come in the mail. But it’s good practice to open every one you receive to verify it's an account you recognize and the charges appear legitimate.
If you don't remember opening the account or the charges appear illegitimate, contact the financial institution to learn more about the account and charges. If they still appear illegitimate after discussing them, place a fraud alert on the account and request to close it.
What to do if you're an identity theft victim
Sometimes, even the most diligent people fall victim to ID theft. Fortunately, there are well-laid-out processes to help you combat these thieves. If your identity has been compromised, consider taking the following steps:
1. Initiating identity theft protection
If you've enrolled in or received free identity theft protection through another service, contact the provider and file a claim before anything else. This ensures you're protected against any other financial losses from that point forward due to the theft.
2. Notifying companies you have financial dealings with
Contact your bank, credit card issuers, lenders and even your employer's human resources department to alert them of the ID theft. They will place alerts, putting them on guard for any suspicious transactions or requests.
3. Reporting the theft to the Federal Trade Commission
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) doesn't prosecute identity theft cases, but it does collect information on cases that other law enforcement agencies use. Reporting your case to the FTC via www.identitytheft.gov puts your information in the system to help combat identity theft as a whole.
Also, when you submit your case to the FTC, you'll receive a recovery plan that'll help you regain your identity. This plan includes a step-by-step outline, a progress tracker and pre-filled forms and letters to complete the process.
4. Contacting your local police
The police may not be able to help much if your identity theft was online, but alerting them of the theft creates a paper trail that can protect you.
For example, if a criminal uses your identity to get a fraudulent driver's license and racks up speeding tickets, the fact that you reported the theft alerts the police that the actual lawbreaker may not be you.
5. Placing a fraud alert
Placing a fraud alert on your credit reports notifies creditors who pull your credit history that your identity has been compromised. This will encourage creditors to take additional steps to verify the credit application isn't fraudulent.
When you place a fraud alert on one credit bureau, it spreads to all three, so there's no need to place an alert on each one. The initial alert is good for one year, but you can extend it to seven years if you filed a police report or an FTC identity theft report.
6. Enacting a credit freeze
A credit freeze prevents any new credit from being opened in your name without your approval. You can add these freezes online by visiting each of the three major credit bureaus' credit freeze pages. Unlike a fraud alert, you must freeze each credit bureau individually.
Keep in mind that a credit freeze can make it challenging to get new credit legitimately, but the security could be well worth the inconvenience.
7. Enrolling in credit monitoring
As a final layer of protection, enroll in credit monitoring to catch any fraudulent accounts that may have slipped through the cracks. These plans usually include a small monthly fee — unless a company is providing it free following a data breach — but the protection they offer could be invaluable after identity theft.
Some of the more robust credit monitoring plans watch your credit report and SSN; they’ll also monitor bank accounts, retirement savings, and more for unusual transactions.
Identity theft protection starts with secure documents
Though it's a growing issue with no signs of stopping, identity theft is mostly preventable with careful document management, especially documents containing your SSN and credit card information. By keeping these documents safe, you've taken a big step toward keeping your identity out of criminals' hands.
Sometimes, though, criminals break through your protections and can still steal your identity. Fortunately, with the help of identity theft protection, the FTC, law enforcement and the credit bureaus, you can regain control of your identity and get your life back to normal.
Struggling to keep track of your credit card balances to ensure there’s no fraud? The Tally credit card debt repayment app tracks your balances in one place so you can easily see when there is a sudden and unexplained increase.