Identity Theft and Social Security

Identity Theft and Social Security
People line up outside of the Social Security Administration office in San Francisco, Calif., on Feb. 2, 2005. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Tom Margenau
Q: My purse was stolen, and now I worry that someone might be using my Social Security number. I called the Social Security office and was told to contact credit-reporting agencies and possibly the police. And they gave me some website to look up. It seems to me they should have done more. Can’t they just cancel my old number and give me a new one? Was I informed correctly?
A: Yes, you probably were given correct information. When a Social Security card is stolen, so many people just naturally assume it is a problem for the Social Security Administration to resolve. But when you think it through, it really isn’t.

And before I go on, let me give some advice. It’s too late for you. But it may help other readers. There is no need for you to be carrying your Social Security card in your wallet or purse. I haven’t carried my card around with me in more than 40 years. And I’ve never needed it. You generally might need to show your Social Security card to someone if you are applying for a job. Or maybe for some kind of government assistance. So, if you are doing that, then carry your card with you on that day. Otherwise, just keep it in a safe place at home.

The same used to be true for Medicare cards. I never put mine in my wallet, unless I was going to the doctor. But now that Medicare cards no longer have our Social Security numbers on them, that is not such a big issue.

Anyway, back to the story of what the Social Security Administration can do for you in cases of identity theft. As a general rule, the SSA gets involved in your life for three reasons. Their first job is to issue you a Social Security number. Their second job is to keep a lifetime record of all the earnings your employer reports under that SSN. Or, if you are self-employed, to keep track of the income you report on the Schedule SE (the Social Security part) of your annual tax return. The SSA’s third job is to pay you monthly retirement or disability benefits that are based on all those earnings that are posted to your Social Security account. Or if you die, they pay your widow(er) and/or children survivors benefits based on those same earnings.

I don’t want to sound too flip or dismissive about this, but if someone steals your Social Security card, it’s really not the SSA’s problem. To put that another way, there isn’t that much they can do about it.

About all they can do is help you monitor your Social Security earnings record. If you see earnings posted to that record that don’t belong to you, they can work with you to correct that record.

But I doubt if that is your major concern right now. You are probably much more worried about someone misusing your Social Security number and other personal information to create credit problems. The first step you can take to getting this resolved is to go to to report the theft and to start a recovery plan. (I am sure this was the website the Social Security people referred you to.) This website is a one-stop resource managed by the Federal Trade Commission, the nation’s consumer protection agency. Or you can call them at 1-877-IDTHEFT.

The identity thief also may use your SSN to get a job. That person’s employer would report earned income to the IRS using your Social Security number. This could get you in trouble with the IRS because it will make it appear that you didn’t report all of your income on your next tax return. If you think you may have tax issues because someone has stolen your identity, go to

Also, you should file an online complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center, or the IC3, at The IC3 gives victims of cybercrime a convenient and easy-to-use reporting mechanism that alerts authorities of suspected criminal or civil violations. IC3 sends every complaint to one or more law enforcement or regulatory agencies with jurisdiction. According to their website, the IC3 reflects a partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National White Collar Crime Center, and the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

Here’s another thought: You should also monitor your credit report periodically. You can get free credit reports online at

And I’m sure you’ve done this already, but if you haven’t, you should report your stolen purse to your local police department.

You wondered why the SSA didn’t just cancel your old number and give you a new one. That is something that can be done, but it really should be a worst-case scenario solution. In other words, if you have taken all the steps you can to resolve your problems with no luck, a new SSN can be issued to you.

But you should keep in mind that a new number probably won’t solve all your problems. This is because other governmental agencies (such as the IRS and state motor vehicle agencies) and private businesses (such as banks and credit-reporting companies) will have records under your old number. Along with other personal information, credit-reporting companies use the number to identify your credit record. So, using a new number won’t guarantee you a fresh start.

For some victims of identity theft, a new number actually creates problems. If the old credit information isn’t associated with your new number, the absence of any credit history under your new number may make it more difficult for you to get credit in the future.

And finally, here is some more advice for all readers. Identity theft doesn’t just happen when someone grabs your purse or pickpockets your wallet. Nowadays, it happens more and more online, with scam artists posing as legitimate businesses. I get a dozen such emails every day, supposedly from my bank, my cable provider, or one of my credit card companies. They are usually bringing an alleged problem to my attention that requires me to send them account numbers or my SSN to resolve. But there is always some little hint, usually involving awkward language or syntax, that the message is fake.

Just today, I got a message, supposedly from my email provider, telling me this: “The Classic version of Your Email is being replaced by a NEW version. It goes FAR in superiority. Click here before you lose your access.” I’m guessing that email, with such clumsy wording and misplaced capital letters, was written by some Ukrainian hacker using some bad Russian-to-English translation software!

Tom Margenau worked for 32 years in a variety of positions for the Social Security Administration before retiring in 2005. He has served as the director of SSA’s public information office, the chief editor of more than 100 SSA publications, a deputy press officer and spokesman, and a speechwriter for the commissioner of Social Security. For 12 years, he also wrote Social Security columns for local newspapers. If you have a Social Security question, contact him at
If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has a book with all the answers. It's called "Social Security -- Simple and Smart." You can find the book at or look for it on Amazon or other book outlets. To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at