In the past, the Social Security Administration (SSA) would snail mail Social Security Statements detailing beneficiaries’ earnings history and the estimated benefits they might be eligible to receive. However, in the digital age, paper forms and statements sent by USPS have largely fallen by the wayside.
Now, beneficiaries are able to access an array of online services by setting up a “my Social Security” account (mySSA). Modernization of the SSA system aimed to make Americans’ lives easier, but it also inadvertently provided scammers with a new avenue for stealing others’ government benefits.
My SSA Online Accounts and Identity Theft Risk
Aside from the convenience of managing your social security benefits online, there is another important reason why you should set up a mySSA account: to prevent an identity thief from creating one using your name and other identifying information.
Not long after the debut of mySSA, identity thieves began using the platform to steal people’s social security benefits. All a scammer needed was an unsuspecting beneficiary’s name, address, date of birth and social security number to create a fraudulent account, file for benefits and/or change the direct deposit account for their payments. To cut down on misuse of the mySSA platform, the SSA teamed up with the credit bureau Equifax to provide more robust identity verification for individuals attempting to create new accounts.
When setting up a mySSA account, you will be asked to verify your identity by providing sensitive information like your driver’s license or ID number, a piece of financial information, or answers to questions about your credit history. While this information is supposed to be private and unique to you, most of this data can be easily found online or in public records. Even if you’ve never had your identity stolen, don’t assume your identifying information is safe. Countless data breaches have occurred in recent years and cybercrime is on the rise. There is a high probability that your data has already been exposed and is available for sale on the Internet.
Seniors are especially vulnerable to this mySSA ploy because they are already eligible to receive retirement benefits and often tend to be tech-averse. However, older adults aren’t the only marks for this scam. Most healthy, employed adults don’t think much about Social Security benefits or have an immediate need for a mySSA account, but any person who is at least 18 years of age and has a Social Security number can create one.
How to Prevent Identity Theft and Social Security Fraud
The best way to protect yourself from a scammer creating a fraudulent mySSA account in your name is to beat them to it. Only one mySSA account can be connected to a Social Security number, therefore setting up your account provides some protection. It is much easier for a cybercriminal to impersonate someone else using information that was stolen, purchased or looked up on the internet than to access an already established account without the rightful owner taking notice.
Create a mySSA Account
Anyone who is eligible to create a mySSA account—elders and caregivers alike—should go ahead and create one if they haven’t already. You can do so quickly and easily on SSA.gov.
If you have an active security freeze and/or fraud alert on your credit report (which I highly recommend!), then you may need to temporarily lift these to create your account. If you don’t wish to lift these, you can elect to verify your identity another way or visit a local Social Security office to set up a mySSA account in person. However, SSA field offices have suspended walk-in service due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and face-to-face appointments are only available in limited, critical situations. You can find updates about SSA operations and services during the coronavirus pandemic here.
Once you have set up an account, you can review your statement, request tax forms, manage Social Security benefits, and access many other online services. Family caregivers who are serving as representative payees can also use their personal mySSA account to access the Representative Payee Portal and manage their loved ones’ benefits.
Monitor Your Account
After creating any account online, it’s important to check it regularly. Closing or deleting old accounts you don’t actively use anymore is recommended to protect your data, but mySSA is a rare exception to this rule. Even if you don’t yet need to use mySSA on a regular basis, you should establish the account and maintain it over the long term. Log in from time to time to ensure your contact information is current, scan for unauthorized activity, and confirm your password is still strong and secure.
If you think your account has been compromised, call the Office of the Inspector General’s fraud hotline at 1-800-269-0271 or file a report online at https://oig.ssa.gov/.
Sign Up for “Extra Security”
The SSA also offers an “extra security” option for mySSA accounts. This involves a beneficiary providing the SSA with a piece of financial information, such as the last 8 digits of one of their credit cards or information on their tax forms, to verify their identity. Extra security can be requested upon initial registration and applied to existing accounts.
Request Account Blocks
A “direct deposit fraud prevention block” can also be applied to an account. This prevents anyone (including you) from initiating direct deposits and changing your direct deposit information and contact information online or via a financial institution. Once this block is in place, you’ll have to visit an SSA office to remove it or make changes to your mySSA account.
Even if an elder plans to continue doing business with the SSA offline, it is still wise to create an account. Consider requesting an eServices block that will prevent anyone (including the accountholder) from accessing and modifying their account information online and via telephone. This kind of block can take the place of regular account monitoring for both seniors and younger individuals who don’t want or need to use online services. Again, the beneficiary will need to show up in person to have this block removed.
Protect Your Data, Protect Yourself
Living in an increasingly connected digital world means that there are always going to be certain security risks surrounding our personal information and the services we use. However, you can reduce some of that risk for you and your family by setting up a mySSA account. This is a simple step that can provide peace of mind and prevent a great deal of damage.