This Is the Single Worst Mistake You Can Make With Your Social Security Number

Some people have trouble keeping their private information private. Some 143 million people were victims in the latest Equifax data breach. Among the data compromised: Social Security numbers. It’s a tough lesson to learn, but careless mistakes — and even careful precautions — can lead to Social Security fraud and identity theft.

Fraudsters are going to new lengths just to hack your identity. If they can hack former first lady Michelle Obama, they can hack you, too. Here are the biggest mistakes you might be making when it comes to your Social Security number, saving the worst for last.

8. Not understanding the implications

Social Security identity thief

Do everything you can to keep your information safe. | blyjak/iStock/Getty Images

  • Arrests and conviction rates for identity theft are shockingly low.

What many people fail to understand is your Social Security number is tied to nearly everything you own. When you carelessly give your Social Security number like you do your telephone number on Match.com, you are putting more than just your tax records in jeopardy. That number is also tied to your medical records, retirement accounts, and credit history. Adhering to willy-nilly Social Security protocol puts you at a higher risk for catastrophe — one where justice is not likely to be served.

Many victims do not realize their identity has been compromised unless a financial institution notifies them, so many incidents go unreported. The Balance notes the arrest rate for reported cases is just 1 in 20, and the conviction rate even lower at 1 in 50.

Next: Many people make this next mistake.

7. Carrying it in your wallet

wallet full of cards

Wallets are so easy to steal or lose. | iStock/Getty Images

  • Your Social Security number is just as unsafe in your wallet as it is online.

One of the most common mistakes people make with their Social Security number is carrying their cards in their wallet. If your wallet or purse ends up stolen, it’s likely your identity will be stolen, too. In a world run rampant with pick-pocketers and breaches, you might as well have the words, “prime candidate for identity theft right here,” above your head when traveling with your card. Unless you’re heading somewhere it’s absolutely needed, it’s best to keep your Social Security card in a safe place at home.

Next: Is providing the last four digits safer than the whole number?

6. Thinking it’s better just to provide your last 4 digits

American Social Security cards

They’re relatively easy to guess. | marcusamelia/iStock/Getty Images

  • Your Social Security number is not exactly random.

Before 2011, assigned Social Security numbers were based on when and where people were born. The first three digits depended on the geographic region you applied for the number. The middle two, otherwise known as your group number, were often assigned for administrative purposes. However, some report hackers can guess this sequence if they have the person’s birthday. It’s only the last four digits that separate you from other Americans.

So it’s no surprise that researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found predicting the first five numbers is relatively easy. Using social media and other data, researchers found they could identify the first five numbers of 44% of deceased people born between 1988 and 2003 in just one attempt.

The Social Security Administration didn’t switch to random number assignments until 2011, meaning a fraudster can steal your identity using your state, date of birth, and the last four digits. So next time you offer only to give the last four digits to protect your identity, understand that would give most criminals what they need to do some damage.

Next: The mistake too many socialites make

5. Being too informative online

person using laptop computer

Be careful what you share. | BrianAJackson/iStock/Getty Images

  • Those who share information online are at a 46% greater risk of identity theft than those who do not.

Because it’s so easy for fraudsters to hack your identity with just a few pieces of information, those who share too much on social media are making a costly mistake with their private records. Many Americans list their name, birthday, age, and place of birth on Facebook, making this data readily available to those less than honest.

The 2017 Identity Fraud Study by Javelin Strategy & Research reports those who share their life on social networks have a 46% higher chance of account takeover fraud. Digitally connected consumers are on an average of 4.9 social networks, making them a prime target. Although these online addicts are quicker to identify fraud than someone who avoids digital networking, e-commerce shoppers show an even higher risk of fraud with exposed financial information. Compare that to offline consumers who have less risk of fraud, and it’s easy to see why being too forthcoming online can put you at risk for Social Security fraud.

If you must designate a date of birth on social accounts, try adding or subtracting some years to guard against identity theft.

Next: Why you should learn to say no

4. Not saying ‘no’

Social Security card and other documents

You should be able to use something else. | iStock/Getty Images

  • There are alternative ways to provide your identity that are just as effective as Social Security numbers.

If you’re handing out your Social Security number like employees at Costco hand out free samples, know you’re making one of the biggest mistakes out there. There are many alternative ways to identify yourself without a Social Security number — and you should fight to use those methods instead. A driver’s license or account number might also suffice in certain situations, for example.

Despite the government’s attempts at safeguarding against attacks with EMV chip cards and biometric identifiers — such as fingerprint scans and facial recognition — hackers can still infiltrate your private life. Proactive Americans must make every effort to keep their private information private.

Next: Digital mistakes lead to damaging results.

3. Getting fooled by official-looking emails

man rubbing his eyes while he works on a laptop

Don’t be fooled by emails. | iStock/Getty Images

  • News flash: The IRS will never request personal information via email.

It’s easier than ever to have your Social Security number stolen in today’s digital age. And unfortunately, many Americans fall right into the clever traps laid out by professional hackers. LifeLock reports hackers are targeting more personal information via email addresses, as the world moves to digital. But know official-looking emails that claim to be the IRS are surely a scam. Don’t ever give out your Social Security number to anyone who initiates contact with you by phone, email, or in person, as the IRS does not request private information via these channels.

Next: See why you probably shouldn’t count on a new number.

2. ‘It’s fine, I’ll just get a new one’

Social Security card

They aren’t likely to give you a new one. | blyjak/iStock/Getty Images

  • Only 400 new numbers were issued in 2016.

So your identity got stolen. Or maybe you’re just overly cautious and would like to thwart potential problems with a new Social Security number. Contrary to popular belief, a new number is not a “get out of jail free” card. For one, it’s not that easy to secure a different number. According to AARP, only 400 new numbers were issued in 2016, despite having over 15 million people victimized by identity theft. A new number requires significant proof of theft and corresponding hardship in getting mortgages, tax refunds, or bad credit that can’t be repaired as a result. Even if you do manage to finagle a new number, the old number remains valid and will require constant monitoring for future incidents.

Second, a new number completely erases your credit history. Even tying it to your old number could lead to years trying to establish new history, so you can apply and qualify for other cards or loans. Try being protective of the number you do have instead of banking on a fresh start.

Next: The biggest mistake people make with their Social Security numbers

1. Giving it out to too many people

man holding Social Security card in his hand

Protect your assets. | KenTannenbaum/iStock/Getty Images

  • Identity theft victims experience an average loss of $1,343.

Between scheduling dentist appointments, signing your children up for summer camp, opening a new line of credit, and closing on your house, it’s likely you’ve become accustomed to giving out your Social Security number to just about everyone who asks. But the biggest mistake people make with their number is offering it to those who don’t really need it.

Kiplinger posted a list of institutions where giving your number is unnecessary and doing so could pose additional threats. Dentists, colleges and universities, summer camps, and private businesses do not need your number to provide you with a service. Being so quick to provide it could lead to financial ruin. The Department of Justice reports identity theft victims lost a combined total of $15.4 billion in 2014, with average victim losing $1,343.

Unless this information is absolutely necessary to verify your identity, such as a credit application, you should ask additional questions before you proceed. The hassle of questioning, evading, and avoiding is far more worthwhile than overcoming massive identity theft. And if you must give your number, make sure strong security measures are in place to protect it.

Follow Lauren on Twitter @la_hamer.