I spent time with many of my clients last year sorting out the issues with the Equifax data breach and doing my own research on how to protect yourself, and the potential risks related to identity theft and the increasing amount of data available about us online and in the cloud.
During my research, one of the areas of potential risk that really surprised me was the possibility of someone to apply for our Social Security Benefits. The harm from identity theft has been well-documented in the media regarding your credit, bank accounts, etc., but many people may be unaware that identity theft can occur with your Social Security benefits as well.
Here’s the deal – when it comes to identity theft, prevention really is far better than cure. If you are a victim of this crime (and I know some of you have been), it can be extremely hard to resolve.
HOW IDENTITY THEFT OCCURS
There are many ways in which a your identity or Social Security number can be stolen. Data breaches are a growing concern, and even things like sifting through trash for personal documents can leave you open to theft. There are also phishing scams, or any number of other approaches. Your identity is then made available via the dark web.
If your Social Security number or card is stolen, it can cause significantly more problems than if it is only your bank account information taken. Though they are both extremely serious problems to face, the major differentiator here is that, while you can get a new bank account number, it is much harder to obtain a new SSN, as these are very rarely issued by the Social Security Administration.
That’s why the Equifax Data Breach is such a big deal. Once an identity thief has your details, they are then in a position to access any of your accounts. From here they can apply for unemployment and other benefits in your name. If they are successful this can be a hassle for you when you apply, or worse, can prevent you from receiving all of the benefits for which you may be entitled.
This can result in your being denied for benefits for which you would otherwise be entitled or at least some problems in receiving them. Thieves may even commit benefit fraud in your name, potentially leaving you at risk of prosecution for their misconduct.
HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF
Following my research, I concluded that this is one of the options available to you. Social Security offers the option to sign up for an access to your account online – they call this a my Social Security account. For those of you that haven’t already, you should really to consider establishing a my Social Security account in order to verify that your account has not been hacked. This is a fairly simple process, and we can help if you need any support with doing so.
Even for those of you that are younger and won’t be applying for social security yet, signing up for online access to your Social Security benefits not only makes sense as a planning tool, but it also protects you by establishing secure logins in order to access your information.
WHAT THE ONLINE ACCOUNT OFFERS
Social Security lists the following benefits of opening a my Social Security account for pre-retirees:
- Requesting a Social Security statement. For those who have yet to file for their benefits, this is a great tool to make sure we have your estimates accurate for planning purposes, and they don’t send them as frequently as they used to.
- The statement offers an estimate of your benefits for retirement, disability and survivor’s benefits (if applicable).
- The statement allows you to verify that all applicable earnings have been posted to your record. This is important because this is what your benefits are based on. Have you checked to make sure that the earnings they say you have for a year is what you actually earned? This is important to ensure that you receive the largest benefit that you are entitled to.
- You can request a replacement Social Security card if you need one.
- You can also request a benefits verification letter. This is a letter that can verify that you’ve never received benefits; that you received them in the past but are not currently receiving them; or that you have applied for benefits but have not yet received an answer yet from Social Security.
For those already receiving benefits, there are a number of advantages as well:
- You will have the ability to check and verify both your earnings and any benefits received on an ongoing basis.
- Update your address and phone number if needed online.
- Get a replacement SSA-1099 or SSA-1042-S for tax season if needed.
- The ability to report any wages if working and receiving disability benefits.
The Social Security site indicates that the my Social Security account offers two-factor verification as an added security measure to protect your identity. You should take advantage of this if you have an existing account or are establishing a new online account.
Two-factor verification uses the traditional login and password, but then adds a second level of verification such as a text message and code sent to your cell phone.
In the age of information, we each have to do our part to protect our data. This is my part in keeping you informed. I hope it was helpful!
If you have any questions regarding this topic, please give us a call and we’ll be happy to help.