What Can Someone Do With My Social Security Number?

Lyndon Seitz
Dolores Bernal
Last Updated November 29, 2023

Your Social Security number (SSN) is the first thing scammers want when talking to or trying to steal information from you. But why? 

What makes those nine digits special? And what can hackers and spammers do with them?

A lot, as it turns out, and none of it is good.

Let’s talk about what accounts are related to it, what someone can do with it, and how to protect yourself from scams and identity theft related to your SSN. You need to know to defend against threats, but thankfully there’s information and tools to help.

What Makes Your Social Security Number So Valuable?

Green Classic Typewriter with White Paper

Photo by Markus Winkler

The Social Security number system was created alongside Social Security to track benefits due to Americans at retirement and other times. It is intrinsically linked to your financial information and is required to:

  • Apply for and receive most government benefits.
  • Get most jobs and get set up with employment.
  • Rent an apartment
  • Apply for most forms of credit.
  • And quite a bit more.

It is also used as a major form of identification (which explains why it’s so popular with scammers).

It allows access to so many accounts and opportunities, and no other piece of information is so directly tied to a person in this way. 

Things a Scammer or Hacker Can Do with Your Social Security Number

A Person with Handcuffs Holding a Sign that Says Fraud

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko

Get Additional Information

A Social Security number can be a key to accessing accounts with other information. If someone has the keys to your house, they can probably find out what’s in your fridge.

If you have your Social Security number, you can probably access the person’s telephone number, last listed address, other forms of contact information, emergency contacts, and more. It depends on the account and how good a scammer is at impersonating someone over a phone call (probably better than you’d like).

They may also check to see how the number was used in the past, which can reveal a great deal about a person.

Impersonate You More Easily

If a company or government organization wants to verify who you are, then your Social Security number (or the last four digits) is one of the first pieces of information to get confirmed. 

Image by Sam Williams

If someone has your SSN, they are more likely to be able to trick these organizations into providing services in your name or sending benefits to the scammer meant for you. The scammer will say you moved, have a different living situation, etc., to get what they want. They don’t care about the damage done to you and your credit or reputation.

Unlike stolen accounts and other pieces of information, someone won’t be able to pull a fast one on your friends and family to get money out of them. With an SSN, most of the impersonation will be impersonal and organizational. But that’s all they need.

Despite a growing awareness among certain organizations about the prevalence of SSN theft and its subsequent use, there is still a lack of sufficient action being taken to require additional or alternative forms of identification.

Apply for Credit in Your Name

The obvious and likely most common use of a Social Security number is to apply for credit while stealing someone else’s identity, reap the benefit, and then leave the victim with the bill and the bad credit score. 

It could be a credit card or something greater, but it often will be short-term in mind and allow the scammer or stolen number holder to hide or walk away with the gains. Rarely will a scammer be so bold as to buy a house with a stolen identity. That process is too involved not to get caught and lose their ill-gotten gains.

And while there are protections against this sort of thing, it will be a major headache to deal with, and you might not get everything back, either money or your credit.

Open Accounts in Your Name

Related to getting credit, with enough information, it’s possible that a scammer can open an account in your name. They will likely need other information to do so, but a dedicated criminal will more than likely be able to get enough of this information by having your name and Social Security number.

Depending on the account, it will be tougher than getting credit, and a scammer might instead try to gain access to an account or take it over instead of starting a new one (there’s more to gain that way), but it is important to check what accounts are opened in your name using your SSN.

Commit Crimes in Your Name

Using your Social Security number to impersonate you (at least partially) is possible, then committing crimes and pinning them on you. Fraud is easy if you don’t care about getting caught. And why would a scammer care if the identity of committing the crime isn’t theirs?

It’s unlikely that you’ll go to jail or face actual criminal penalties for things that clearly weren’t done by you, especially if you have evidence someone is impersonating you. Nonetheless, the process can be terrible, time-consuming, and costly.

Steal Benefits and More from You

If someone can impersonate you well enough and is close enough or has enough of your information, they can easily take benefits meant for you, such as Social Security income. They might also try to fraudulently get benefits in your name that you wouldn’t be actually entitled to (again, why would a scammer care if it looks like you’re lying?)

This is more likely in some situations than others. A “loved one” committing identity fraud against an elder using their social security number and other information is sadly a common practice, and often there isn’t anyone advocating for these victims (who might not even know they’re getting defrauded).

You may or may not be a prime target for this problem, but you should be aware of it and see if it applies to anyone in your life.

Set Up Bills and Services in Your Name

It isn’t too far off from getting credit in your name, but some scammers or someone who buys an identity will set up services (perhaps a cable service, Netflix account, whatever really) in the name of their victim, often using credit set up with a stolen SSN in the process.

The scammer will then just not pay the bills that come in, letting your credit score take the hit (if they even have a good credit score left on their end). And if it dries up? They’ll likely move on to a new victim or try something else.

It’s one less responsibility the scammer has to deal with, despite the headache it creates for the victim. It might not be noticeable until you learn about it by checking your credit score or getting an alert on the matter (which is why a service such as Aura is important – more on that later).

How to Detect Fraud Involving Your Social Security Number

To solve any problems surrounding your SSN, you must first know there is a problem. And identity thieves typically don’t give good notice (rude of them, I know). However, they don’t need to tell you as you can find out for yourself.

  • You can check your credit report for any suspicious activities. It will likely appear there first. Look for things you don’t recall applying for.
  • You can check with the SSA to get your Social Security Statement. Reviewing this document will help you determine if something is wrong.
  • There are services you can pay for that will monitor your credit for you, whether for general or security purposes. Aura is a service that can help monitor the usage of your credit and SSN, looking for identity theft.

Signs There Is Something Wrong

On top of occasionally doing the above, you should also be on the lookout for the following:

  • You are getting notifications, either by email or phone, that you shouldn’t be getting.
  • You are getting alerts that your identity or accounts have been compromised (to be fair, this one is pretty obvious, but too many people ignore the alerts).
  • You are getting letters, “junk” mail, and other documents indicating that you have signed up for something you shouldn’t have.
  • You are getting repeat notifications that someone is trying to log into your account(s).
  • Your credit score is taking a nosedive, and you aren’t sure why.

How Secure Is the Social Security Number System

Not nearly as secure as it should be, given what we use it for these days.

The Social Security system was created about 90 years ago for a different purpose than what we use today. The numbers and systems involved are different, and the technology we use today would be science fiction to the system’s creators. 

Fraud was possible and likely common back then, but computers and our communications systems make it so easy.

Think about it and realize that the number is only nine digits. From a cracking perspective, that’s nothing. It’s a billion combinations.

Also, while there are a billion combinations, there are 350+ million people in the United States. String nine numbers together. There is more than a one-in-three chance that you have a perfectly valid Social Security number (though it won’t do you much good without a name to match it).

And above all else, there is one big elephant in the room: More SSNs are out in the world potentially available to identity thieves than there are not. Yours is probably among them, and you might not know it.

How Easy Is It to Steal a Social Security Number?

Scarily easy if you know what you’re doing.

Given that we use Social Security numbers for all manner of things, it’s pretty easy to trick someone into giving theirs up. A compelling enough story with a facade of authority is all that is typically needed. 

Additionally, an SSN might get stolen in one of the following scenarios:

  • A federal database or server could get hacked, leading to the theft or leak of millions of SSNs, among other information. 
  • Your wallet, mail, or documents that may have your SSN in or on them get stolen.
  • Someone may pay a corrupt official or employee for access to a set of SSNs.
  • A scammer may set themselves up as a potential landlord, employer, or someone else who would legitimately need your number.
    • Alternatively, an actual person in one of these groups may decide to supplement their income in a less-than-legal way, and the information is there.

What Do to If Your Social Security Number Gets Stolen and Used

There’s a good chance your number was leaked or stolen, and there’s not much to get that number back into privacy. 

However, if your number is getting used or you are at higher risk for identity theft, you must act. Here’s where to start.

Contact the SSA

If your SSN gets stolen and used, you will want to contact the SSA, among other entities depending on the nature of the fraud. They can ensure that it will not get misused further, help you recover any accounts related to their activities, and stay on the lookout for additional issues.

You can contact the SSA online. Alternatively, you can likely make a phone call, but that won’t be so quick and painless, and you might not get faster results. Note that this is best when fraud specifically involving Social Security is involved.

The Office of the Inspector General of the Social Security Administration also has a page on resources for types of fraud you may wish to look at.

Freeze Your Credit

If you know your SSN was stolen and is likely to be used, then to prevent some forms of identity theft and a financial headache, freeze your credit immediately.

You will need to freeze your credit with a few different groups, and you can get a detailed guide via this link. It’s a small chore but likely not as big a problem as you think.

Lock Your SSN

On top of freezing your credit, can you lock your SSN? Well, you can, at least electronically, and it can save you a lot of trouble if you do it at the right time.

To do so, follow the instructions on this page.

Note that this will cause some inconvenience should you need to legitimately use it in the near future, but the inconvenience is nothing compared to identity theft.

You can also work with the Social Security Administration to get a new SSN, but this is a difficult process and only available when other options are exhausted.

Closeup Photography of White Gate With Brass-colored Padlock

Photo by Bich Tran

Contact Relevant Account Admins and Companies

If you think your specific accounts might be at risk or you use your SSN to access them, you may want to add extra security on those accounts, contact customer service to explain the situation if you need them, and generally keep a closer eye on them.

Your bank accounts might be applicable, as will the accounts of potential creditors. Results may vary regarding the efficacy of customer service, but keep trying and fix what you can.

Get Identity Theft Protection

You can’t monitor everything independently and hope to live a normal life if you are at high risk of identity theft. You need help from experts to protect your identity and accounts.

I recommend Aura for identity theft protection services in this situation. It will notify you if something is wrong, monitor your accounts and information, and provide you with identity theft insurance so you aren’t financially ruined should the worst happen. It will monitor the use of your SSN.

Report Any Applicable Activities to the FTC

The FTC wants to hear about fraud, scams, and more so that it can better combat them in the future. If your information was stolen in such a manner, you can report it here.

Monitor for Additional Activity

If your social security number gets stolen, you must watch for identity theft (or have a service do so) for a long time. It might get used immediately by the person who stole it, but it could be put up for sale (probably as part of a batch).

That means it could be months or even years until it gets used. And given that your SSN doesn’t typically change over time, there’s not much of an expiry date on the information.

Conclusion – Don’t Let Your Social Security Number Get Used Against You

Even if your SSN doesn’t have the built-in security it should, you will want to protect it from criminals and fraud as much as possible. It can take work and a bit of planning, but it can be done.

Start by learning about some of the most common scams and potential ways an identity thief can use the information, then move on to getting Aura’s protection and additional security programs. Nothing will be perfect, but you can mitigate the risks and have a solid plan should your number get stolen.