Identity theft has always been a problem, but issues like data breaches and a lack of online privacy have brought identity theft concerns to the top of people’s minds. It’s a pretty broad crime, encompassing several things a person can do if they get access to your PII, or personally identifiable information.
One of the worst things that can happen in a privacy breach is exposure of Social Security numbers. They’re wrapped up in most aspects of Americans’ lives—employment, medical histories, taxes, education, bank accounts and so on. The consequences of having your Social Security number end up in someone else’s hands aren’t pretty—most of them are downright terrifying.
1. Open Financial Accounts
Your Social Security number is the most important piece of personal information a bank needs when extending you credit or opening an account. With that number, the thief can get credit cards or loans, and when it comes time to repay them, they won’t, damaging your credit in the process. The missed payments are tied to your Social Security number, meaning they’ll end up on your credit report.
In some ways, that’s one of the better outcomes of identity theft—you can use your credit scores and credit reports to spot fraud and put an end to it. Unfortunately, it could take a while for your credit to recover from the damage.
2. Get Medical Care
Health insurance provider Anthem was hit by a data breach recently, and people were first concerned about exposure of medical records. Anthem says medical information wasn’t compromised—Social Security numbers were, and that poses a greater threat to your health.
Someone with your Social Security number could undergo medical treatment, effectively tainting your medical records. Inaccurate medical records could have deadly consequences, if you receive treatment based on a false history.
3. File for a Fraudulent Tax Refund
This is the big concern right now, because we’re in the thick of tax season. Last year, identity thieves stole $5.2 billion in fraudulent tax refunds from the Internal Revenue Service, and this crime is a growing threat in the wake of massive data breaches. The sooner you file your taxes, the more likely it is you’ll get to your refund before an identity thief.
You’ll know someone stole your identity if your return is rejected as a duplicate—then you get to start the process of resolving the fraud and, if necessary, getting the refund you deserve.
4. Commit Crimes
Getting your Social Security number might just be a fraction of the thief’s crimes. If the identity thief gets arrested for another crime and gives your Social Security number to law enforcement, you’ve become tangled in their criminal history.
5. Steal Your Benefits
A thief could also use your Social Security number to file for unemployment or Social Security benefits, depleting the assistance you may need to access later on.
Thieves can operate under your identity for years without discovery, and some of these crimes are very difficult to detect. One of the best things you can do is regularly check your credit reports (you can also get your free credit report summary from Credit.com, updated every month), reviewing them thoroughly for unauthorized accounts or public records not related to you. These red flags could indicate clerical errors or identity theft. Either way, you want to watch out for it and act as soon as you see something suspicious.
Christine DiGangi writes for Credit.com, where this article originally appeared.