Social Security benefits are a favorite target of identity thieves. Today’s thieves are more sophisticated than their predecessors who would go down streets and pull Social Security checks from mailboxes. Today’s thieves have a variety of techniques using email, fake web sites, and telephone calls. The scams will escalate as the Baby Boomers age, and the large Millennial cohort right behind the Boomers makes a continuation of such scams likely. You’re a potential victim whether or not you’re already receiving benefits.
After thieves obtain your Social Security number and other personal information, if you aren’t already receiving benefits but are eligible, they file for benefits in your name. They’ll have the benefits deposited in their bank account. If you’re already receiving benefits, the thieves try to redirect the benefits to a bank account they control.
The Social Security Administration doesn’t release information on identity theft and related incidents involving benefits. But an Inspector General’s report in 2015 sampled data from 2013. It found that about $20 million in benefits for 12,200 recipients were misdirected to the wrong bank accounts. The IG also found the agency was able to prevent another $6 million belonging to 5,300 beneficiaries from being misdirected.
Don’t rely on others. Take steps to protect your Social Security benefits even if you’re not already receiving them. Once you turn age 62, the benefits will be attractive to thieves. They can file a claim for benefits while you’re going about your business and letting the delayed retirement credits increase the benefits you plan to claim later. You need to take preventive actions, even if you don’t plan to apply for benefits for years.
The best way to protect your benefits is to set up a MySocialSecurity account on the Social Security web site at www.socialsecurity.gov. The account has a number of features, such as a calculator to estimate the benefits you’d receive under different claiming scenarios and checking the accuracy of your earnings history. You’ll also be able to apply for benefits online when you’re ready and take other actions.
Another advantage of the account, and a way to prevent ID theft, is that it lets you check any activity related to your Social Security number. If someone applies for benefits in your name or tries to change your address or the bank account to which your benefits are deposited, you’ll see it in the account as a pending transaction. Once you set up the account, check it periodically to see if there’s been any activity. Contact Social Security if you see a transaction you didn’t initiate.
An alternative is to call Social Security’s toll-free number periodically to ask if there has been any activity in your account. You also can ask what your latest estimated benefits are.
When you’re receiving benefits, check each month that your benefits are deposited on a timely basis in your bank account. When a deposit isn’t made on time, contact Social Security. It could be the first sign that someone obtained your information and used it to divert the benefits to their bank account.
Social Security is good about restoring benefits once you alert them to the theft and convince them you’re the real beneficiary and didn’t authorize the change. But the faster you act and the more steps you take to prevent the theft or catch it early, the easier it will be to resolve the problem and restore your benefits.