By now, you've probably heard the news that Equifax, one of the three major credit bureaus, experienced a major data breach that could potentially impact a whopping 143 million Americans. As a result, criminals now have access to loads of information that can be used to perpetuate identity theft crimes, from birth dates to addresses to driver's license numbers. Countless Social Security numbers, however, were also obtained during the recent breach, which means that not only might your identity be compromised, but also, your Social Security benefits.
How your Social Security payments could be in danger
The primary concern with regard to the Equifax breach is the fact that criminals might attempt to open credit cards in consumers' names, or use existing cards to rack up charges that those consumers would then potentially be on the hook to pay for. But those same unscrupulous individuals might also attempt to steal countless amounts of Social Security income from otherwise unsuspecting workers and seniors.
Let's talk about those seniors who are currently receiving benefits. If criminals get hold of their personal information, there's nothing to stop them from redirecting payments toward a new bank account, thus collecting that money themselves and leaving retirees who need it to prove they're the rightful owners.
Then there are those who have yet to file for Social Security, whether because they're still working, are too young, or are waiting until a later age to boost their monthly payments. Here's what could happen if you're one of these folks: Someone could, in theory, access your information at some point or another, file for benefits as you (either immediately or once you become eligible), direct those benefits to a new address, and collect them for years before you're ever the wiser. Then, when you finally decide it's time to file for benefits, you'll learn that you have, in fact, supposedly been receiving them for years.
The burden will then be on you to prove to the Social Security Administration that your identity was stolen, and that you haven't actually collected a dime yet. Resolving that issue could take months, or even years, during which time you could end up missing out on the income you need.
Oh, and to make matters slightly worse, guess where the Social Security Administration gets much of its information from? That's right -- Equifax. Talk about ironic.
How to protect yourself, and your benefits
If you're wondering how to protect yourself from identity theft in general, my colleague, Matthew Frankel, offers some great advice here. But if you're specifically concerned about your Social Security benefits, being hyper-vigilant can help.
If you're already receiving benefits, make sure your payments continue to arrive as scheduled. If you see one missing, report it immediately. Furthermore, retain all documentation you receive from the Social Security Administration so that if you do end up needing to prove that you are who you claim to be, you'll have the paperwork in place.
That latter piece of advice is just as important if you're not yet collecting benefits. In fact, it's perhaps even more important, because if you're not regularly receiving income from Social Security, you'll have less of an indication that something is amiss than someone who clearly does receive a benefits payment. On the other hand, if someone attempts to file for benefits on your behalf, and you have records dating back to an earlier period than that, you may have an easier time convincing the Social Security Administration that you've been victimized.
One final thing: None of the above is meant to frighten you, or cause undue stress. Given the amount of data that was potentially exposed in the recent breach, there's a good chance that you'll never wind up impacted with regard to Social Security or any other aspect of your credit or finances. On the other hand, it's better to be vigilant than to wind up sorry, and a few easy steps, like preserving the aforementioned paperwork, could save you a world of trouble if you do end up encountering a problem.
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