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Attackers, possibly from China, made off with the personal information of over 4 million federal employees. By some accounts, the stolen data included the Social Security numbers of every current and former U.S.
Yet, in the grand scheme of stolen Social Security numbers floating through cyberspace, it's barely a drop in the bucket. Jay Jacobs, the lead data scientist for Verizon Verizon Enterprise Solutions, recently told NPR he believes 60 to 80 percent of Social Security numbers have, at some point, been compromised by thieves. In short, if you have a Social Security number, there's a good chance someone who doesn't have your best interests at heart has access to it. Social Security numbers are permanent, right?
Well, actually, not so much.That's a serious problem because, within the world of identity thieves, Social Security numbers are among the most prized pieces of information. Armed with a victim's name and Social Security number, an identity thief can open a new line of credit, apply for a home or car loan, obtain medical goods or services in the victim's name, defraud the victim's health insurance by getting reimbursed for medical care that never happened, or even file a fake tax return and then steal the victim's refund. On the online black markets, where hackers buy and sell troves of stolen personal information, Social Security numbers typically sell for far more more money than something like a credit card number or an email account and password combination. It isn't just because Social Security numbers are like skeleton keys giving identity thieves access into a myriad of different supposedly private aspects of a victim's life. The Office of Personnel Management may be offering all federal employee affected by their system breach 18 months of free credit monitoring, but repercussions from the hack may plague victims for years.


The Social Security number you receive at birth is the one that you're stuck with for the rest of your life. How to qualify for a new Social Security numberIn a certain limited set of circumstances, the Social Security Administration allows people to get new Social Security numbers. For anyone whose battles with identity theft have been long and difficult, getting get a new number is something that may be a solution; however, doing so comes with its own distinct set of problems. You will also need to provide evidence you are having ongoing problems because of the misuse."Changing your Social Security number is not a guaranteed fixEven if you are granted a new Social Security number, your problems may not instantly evaporate. In her experience, the Social Security Administration appears to deny most people's requests for new numbers. While the agency doesn't keep track of the number of applications for new Social Security numbers, only 250 were granted during all of last year."Most people who are asking us for it have had a persistent case of identity theft where it continues to crop up over a period of time," Velasquez says.
It pops up and they have to fix it again."Why victims want to change their Social Security numberThe most difficult cases of identity theft to resolve are typically ones involving non-financial aspects of a person's life. There are a fairly robust set of mechanisms in place, like credit freezes, to stop an identity thief from wreaking too much havoc on a person's finances, but it's much more difficult to stop medical, governmental, or criminal identity theft.Criminal identity theft is when a thief uses a victim's name or identity in the commission of a crime. We've also seen where someone has a felony warrant [for their arrest due to someone stealing their identity]," says Velasquez, whose organization runs a counseling service for identity-theft victims.
In fact, it could create a whole new set of headaches.Why you shouldn't change your Social Security numberWhile the Social Security Administration will have a record of your new number, that change is unlikely won't make its way across every government agency and private company using Social Security numbers of identification purposes. The IRS, your local DMV, your neighborhood bank branch, or giant insurance company could still have your name connected to your old number, which could cause problems.


An article from the Identity Theft Resource Center on changing Social Security numbers recounts the story of an identity theft victim who successfully applied for a new number, only to discover the drawbacks far outweighed the benefits. The victim wrote that it proved difficult to secure a mortgage because the new Social Security number effectively wiped his credit history. The direct deposit system at his job got screwed up as did his medical policy and 401(k) savings plan. His car insurance rates went up, and his bank opened up a fraud investigation because of the inconsistencies in his record.
In that same article, a young woman identifying herself as "Debbie" explained how changing her Social Security number helped put an end to a lingering case of identity theft."Fortunately for me, at the time, I had no work history and no credit cards of my own, and the thief was unable to get approved for any credit or loans.
The whole ordeal lasted about two years, and I don’t know to this day how she got my information"The real problem with Social Security numbersNo matter that individual result, switching Social Security numbers is only putting a Band-Aid on a much larger problem: Social Security numbers themselves.
The issue with Social Security numbers is that they're used both as identifier and an authenticator. It effectively serves as both a user name, meaning people have to give it out with some frequency, and a password, meaning it also has to be kept safe. Nevertheless, for victims who have long suffered at the hands of identity thieves, getting a new Social Security may be a good, albeit temporary, stop-gap solution. To get a new Social Security number, applicants must apply in person at a Social Security office.



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