A stolen Social Security number is the most problematic form of identity theft. When your SSN is available for sale online on the dark web, this is what you need to do now.
In my review of CreditWise, the free credit score and monitoring service from Capital One, I mentioned how it reported that my Social Security number and other personal information were found on the dark web.
In this day and age, someone who has not had their personal information leaked in a data breach is in the minority. Notable hacks include companies such as Equifax, LinkedIn, Yahoo, T-Mobile, Facebook, and Marriott. Personal or credit card data from tens to hundreds of million customers were stolen in the hacks.
Much of this stolen information will end up for sale on hidden websites on the dark web. These sites can only be accessed with a special browser that enables users to maintain their anonymity.
Recently, many people were notified by monitoring services and companies like CreditWise and Discover that their Social Security number and other info were found on the dark web.
Here is what to do when your SSN is posted online or if you’ve been notified your data has been compromised.
Freeze Your Credit
Once your Social Security number, name, and birthday are in the hands of criminals, they can use them to open new credit cards and take out loans in your name.
You can block unauthorized people from opening new financial accounts by proactively putting a credit freeze on your credit. Also called a security freeze, this can prevent fraud by preventing credit issuers from accessing your credit reports and credit scores unless you unfreeze them first.
A credit freeze is different from a fraud alert. A fraud alert on your credit report notifies businesses you are a possible victim of identity theft and they should contact you first to verify your identity. It doesn’t block access to your credit file.
The drawback of freezing your credit is the additional hassle when you are legitimately applying for credit. You will have to keep track of your PINs and unlock your credit first at the credit bureaus. Afterward, you will need to refreeze your credit to re-enable the protection.
Here are the directions on how to freeze your credit at each of the three credit bureaus.
Check Your Credit Reports Regularly
Freezing your credit keeps thieves from opening new accounts in your name. That doesn’t mean you can rest easy.
A credit freeze doesn’t stop thieves from getting your credit card details through social engineering. With your personal information, a scammer can call up your credit card company pretending to be you.
To help keep an eye on your accounts, you should request credit reports from the three credit bureaus at AnnualCreditReport.com.
Federal law allows you to get one free credit report every year from each credit reporting agency.
Due to the pandemic, you can currently request free weekly online credit reports from AnnualCreditReport.com. When the pandemic is over, you can stagger your requests by requesting a report from a different bureau every four months.
In case you are wondering whether you are still able to request your credit reports with an active credit freeze, the answer is yes. You do not need to lift your freeze to check your Experian and TransUnion credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.
Some free credit monitoring services such as Credit Karma and CreditWise also give you access to your credit report. You will likely need to unlock your credit first to sign-up with these services.
Check Your Credit Card and Bank Statements Monthly
The information on your credit reports is a snapshot in time. You could have someone start racking up charges on your card the day after you check your credit report.
If you do not check your financial account statements regularly, you will miss the fraudulent charges until it is too late.
Under federal law, banks and card issuers must give you 60 days to dispute any unauthorized transactions that show up on your statement.
Set Up Account Alerts
Criminals can easily max out your credit card or empty your bank account in a day if you aren’t paying attention. Oftentimes, they will make a small test charge to see if it goes through successfully before making it rain.
Should you have many credit cards or bank accounts, it can become almost a full-time job keeping an eye on everything.
One way to stay on top of what is happening with your accounts in real-time is to set up account alerts. You can set it up to receive emails or texts about various transactions. Get notifications of cash withdrawals at an ATM, purchases made in a foreign country, charges over a certain amount, or receive a weekly email summary of charges.
Lock Unused Credit Card Accounts
Some credit card issuers allow you to lock or freeze your credit card to prevent new purchases and cash advances. Usually, this feature doesn’t affect existing recurring transactions, payments, credits, or adjustments; those will go through like normal.
This feature was likely created for people who had misplaced their card. Instead of having to change their account number or request a new card, they can lock it while they look for their card.
The ability to lock your account also comes in handy for cards that you keep only for emergencies. Have peace of mind knowing that the card you keep frozen in a block of ice in your freezer can’t be used even if a criminal gets ahold of the number.
Create a My Social Security Account
In the past, the Social Security Administration (SSA) sent statements by mail with your earnings history and estimated benefits once you retire.
With the widespread adoption of the internet, the SSA has since switched from snail mail to making your information available online on a “my Social Security” (mySSA) account.
The idea was to make our lives easier by giving beneficiaries the convenience of managing their Social Security benefits online themselves. However, soon after the launch of mySSA, scammers started stealing people’s benefits. They created fraudulent accounts to file for benefits or changed the direct deposit account for people’s Social Security payments.
Since only one mySSA account can be associated with a Social Security number, the best way to stop scammers is to create an account first. You can sign up for an account by going to SSA.gov.
You will have to temporarily unfreeze your credit first if you have a security freeze on your credit reports. The other option is to go to your local Social Security office and fill out a special form.
Watch for Tax Refund Fraud
Tax refund fraud is when a thief uses your name and Social Security number to file a fake tax return to claim a refund.
You will only find out someone had filed a tax return under your identity when you submit your return online and it gets rejected or you receive a notice in the mail informing you a return has already been filed under your SSN if you mailed in a paper return.
While you won’t lose your tax refund, it can be a major inconvenience. Rather than getting your tax refund check or deposit in less than 3 weeks if you e-filed, it could instead take up to 6 months while the IRS investigates.
To prevent being a victim of tax refund fraud, you have two options.
- You can file your return early in the tax season much to the chagrin of procrastinators. By filing early, you will lock out any subsequent fraudulent filings by scammers.
- You can request an Identity Protection PIN or IP PIN from the IRS. This is a six-digit number that you will have to include with the return when you file. Returns without the IP PIN will get rejected if filed electronically, and paper returns will be subjected to additional fraud checks. Once enrolled to receive an IP PIN, the IRS will generate a new number for you yearly. Keep in mind there is no way to opt-out once you are in the program.
Can You Remove Your Personal Data from the Dark Web
Unfortunately, it is impossible to remove your data once it is available for sale on the dark web.
The government has been able to shut down large online criminal marketplaces on the dark web like AlphaBay and Silk Road. However, this will only prevent hackers from selling their stolen databases until they move to another site, similar to playing whack-a-mole.
Authorities could also attempt to find and arrest the person responsible for the hack. But once the data is posted for sale on the dark web, it will quickly be sold, traded, and re-sold to others.
Don’t panic if you are notified by an identity theft monitoring service that your personal data is online on the dark web.
When you have a large data breach such as the Equifax hack that affected upwards of 147 million people, you are in plenty of company. That’s a good thing. The possibility of a hacker picking your information out of that massive database is almost like winning the lottery.
You should take some of the precautions detailed in this post to avoid becoming a victim. The most important thing you should do is freeze your credit. Then be vigilant and report any issues as soon as you discover them.
Have you received any notices that your Social Security number is on the dark web? Any other tips on what you should do when your personal info is compromised?