NEW YORK (CNNfn) - John Williams always paid his bills on time, so he knew something was wrong when he started getting calls from creditors about $20,000 in unpaid receipts.|
Months of headaches later, Williams realized someone had stolen his Social Security number from his mailbox and charged thousands of dollars on credit cards. The thief took out loans and even bought a car. It got so bad Williams almost lost his house.
"When I got the (first) call from the collection agency, I went ballistic because I knew my credit was good," said Williams, 38, of Virginia Beach, Va. "The call was for an Exxon gas credit card but I knew I paid it off five or six years ago."
The number of complaints of Social Security theft has nearly tripled recently and like Williams' case, it can ruin your credit and make your life miserable. Thieves can strike by stealing your wallet, sifting through your mail, or even by pilfering an online file.
But there are ways you can protect your Social Security number from getting into the wrong hands.
It can ruin your life
Williams said his life was turned upside down when he became the victim of identity theft, spending countless hours writing letters and making phone calls to creditors. Fortunately, he's not in the market to buy a new house or car. He credit rating is so poor now he probably wouldn't get past the paperwork.
"I can laugh about it, but it's been very hard," Williams said. "One collection company was getting ready to put a lien on my house, but I was able to get that stopped. It's been a real battle."
Williams apparently isn't alone. In 1999, more than 30,000 complaints were filed to the Social Security Administration's fraud hotline about the misuse of Social Security numbers. And that number is up from 1998 when there were more than 11,000 complaints associated with stolen Social Security numbers.
In October 1998, Congress passed the Identity Theft Act, which makes it a federal crime to knowingly use someone else's identity.
It's all in the numbers
The Social Security Administration first introduced the nine-digit numbers in 1935 to keep track of each American's earnings for tax purposes and Social Security benefits. But many companies today, like department stories, local video stores and credit card companies often use the numbers for their database.
"There's nothing that compels you to give them your number, however, there is equally nothing in the law that requires them to provide you the service if you don't present your (Social Security) number," said Kurt Czarnowski, regional public affairs officer for the Social Security Administration New England office.
It doesn't hurt to ask how your number will be used, says Betsy Broder, assistant director for planning and information with the Federal Trade Commission Bureau of Consumer Protection.
Five things you can do to protect your Social Security number from being stolen
1. Review your credit report twice a year.
2. Remove your name from marketers' unsolicited mailing lists.
3. Only release your Social Security number to agencies who require it for action you have initiated. Never give this information to unsolicited telephone callers or over the Internet.
4.Shred all thrown-out documents containing your Social Security number.
5.Contact your creditor or service provider if expected bills don't arrive.
So the phone rings -- probably during dinner -- and the caller tries to sell you a magazine subscription or long distance service.
Never give your Social Security number over the phone, Broder advises. Tell the caller you don't do business over the phone, but -- if you are interested in the product -- you'd gladly accept an application in the mail.
On the other hand, if you buy a new cell phone and call the phone company to set up your service and are asked your Social Security number, it doesn't hurt to ask how your number will be used, Broder says. In this case, you will feel more comfortable providing the information since you initiated the call, she said.
Do, indeed, leave home without it
Most people carry their blue and white Social Security card in their wallet, which is a big mistake. You should only need to present the card for tax purposes when you start a new job, Czarnowski said. Otherwise, leave it at home in a safe place.
In Williams' case, the perpetrator rummaged through his mail and stole his Social Security number from a bank statement. But thieves can strike in a variety of ways, including logging onto the Internet and buying personal information through a Web site.
Once you've become a victim of identify theft, you may think that getting assigned a new Social Security number will solve all of your problems. But it requires a lot of paperwork and detailed reports showing hardship.
"It's really a last resort," said Rena Jones, public affairs officer in the Office of the Inspector General.
But if you notice you credit card bill lists furniture, clothes and luxury items you don't remember charging, you can take steps to clean up your credit and track down the thief who may have stolen your Social Security number:
1. Notify your local police and file a complaint. If your loss is $1,000 or greater, you may also contact your local FBI office.
2. Contact credit reporting agencies and request that a security alert be placed on your account.
3. Request and carefully review a copy of your credit report for other false accounts or information.
4. Contact your bank and request new account numbers, ATM cards, and PIN numbers.
5. Contact the Social Security Administration Fraud Hotline at 800-269-0271 or the Federal Trade Commission Fraud Hotline at 877-FTC-HELP.
Williams continues to write letters and call the credit agencies to clean up his credit report, but it's an arduous process that has been going on for six months. Even when he does straighten out his credit history, he says this experience will have lasting effects.
"I have seen many things like this but how do you tell people it could happen to you" he said. "It does affect your life. What if I had to move right now and buy another house? I would be in a bind."
-- Click here to send email about this story to Staff Writer Jennifer Karchmer.