Should you get a new Social Security number?

Experts warn against replacement except in extreme cases. Here's how to do it right.

Published: February 13, 2015 11:30 AM

The security breach at Anthem Blue Cross might have you wondering whether can get a new Social Security number.

You can get a replacement Social Security number. But government officials and privacy experts caution against it, in large part because of the potential for post-replacement bureaucratic hassles. That might explain why in 2014 only 249 Americans requested and got their Social Security number changed because of someone else's misuse of it, according to the Social Security Administration. 

Identity fraud related to stolen Social Security numbers is relatively uncommon, and our advice is, Take it seriously, but don't panic

Here's how to decide whether obtaining a new Social Security number is right for your situation and our advice for getting one:

1. Assess your threat tolerance

There's cause for concern about the Anthem heist. The hackers took up to 80 million Social Security numbers, along with everything needed—name, address, date of birth, e-mail address, employment and income information—to open new credit accounts, obtain health benefits, earn taxable income, and even commit crimes in your name.

That means the thieves could take the money and leave you with the tax bills, collection letters, and bad credit reports, and also make you more vulnerable to spear-phishing attacks.

But Bob Geller, a privacy consultant, notes that each year, less than one percent of all consumers are victims of new-account and personal-information identity fraud compared with 6.2 percent for existing credit card and bank account ID fraud. On the other hand, 22.5 percent of breach notice recipients subsequently become victims of ID fraud, according to Javelin Strategy & Research, a California consulting firm. 

Learn why you shouldn't give your doctor your Social Security number. Also, protect yourself with the advice in the paranoid's guide to digital security.

2. Gather evidence of recent misuse and hardship

To issue a new Social Security number, the SSA requires proof that your Social Security number is actually being misused and the problem is an ongoing hardship. Such evidence would include an identity thief filing a false tax return to steal your refund. Keep records of everything strange that might indicate trouble, such as an IRS letter questioning you about income not reported, records of your frustrating battle to correct credit reports, or a letter denying you a mortgage because of erroneous information.The SSA will also look to see whether you've tried to solve the problem with other tools at your disposal, such as a security freeze, which can help shut the door on the crook's access to your credit report.

3. Try easier remedies first

If you're a victim of tax-refund fraud, work with the IRS and respond immediately to notices. Case resolution takes about four months, and victims get an Identity Protection Personal Identification Number, or IP PIN, a unique six-digit number that has been issued to 1.5 million taxpayers to file with their returns and showing that they're the rightful filers. Used together at the IRS, the Social Security number and IP PIN effectively become a modified replacement Social Security number.

If these efforts work, you probably don't need a new Social Security number; if they don't, the hardship you endure and persistence of the problem strengthen your case for a replacement.

4. Make the case at your local Social Security office

You'll need to use the application for an original Social Security card (Form SS-5) and prove your citizenship and identity with an unexpired drivers license, U.S. passport, birth certificate, or other acceptable documents, and document the misuse and ongoing problem. The decision is made at the local office level on a case-by-case basis. "Once we have all the necessary information verified, you can generally receive a new number within 10 business days," says Nicole Tiggemann, a spokeswoman for the Social Security Administration. Your original Social Security number won't be deleted; it will stay assigned to you and linked to the new one.

5. Request a letter confirming the change

The SSA will send information about the replacement to the IRS and your employer, and the new number is what becomes available to many federal agencies that need to know your SSN. It's up to you to notify others of the change.

"Sometimes getting a new number can leave you worse off," says Steve Toporoff, an attorney in the Federal Trade Commission's Division of Privacy and Identity Protection, because you need to contact all the government agencies, financial institutions, credit bureaus, health insurers, and other places where the old Social Security number might be used."

To make that process smoother, get a letter from the SSA detailing the change, stating that you will no longer be using the old number and start to refer to the new number, advises the Identity Theft Resource Center.

Be aware that a new Social Security number will not guarantee a clean slate or fresh start everywhere. For instance, you could end up with a new Social Security number but no credit history, which you would then have to straighten out. Or a state or municipal agency or private company could continue to use your old Social Security number, resulting in confusion over who you are or why there are no records about you. That, again, would be something you would have to rectify.

—Jeff Blyskal (@JeffBlyskal on Twitter)

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