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Will the Equifax breach affect your Social Security benefits?

Will the Equifax breach affect your Social Security benefits?
© Błażej Łyjak | Dreamstime.com

One of the worst data breaches of all time may be getting even worse. You've heard that as many as 143 million Americans were impacted by a massive data breach at Equifax. Information including names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and the numbers of some drivers licenses, have been accessed by cybercriminals.

Beyond that, credit card numbers for 209,000 Americans were exposed, as well as 182,000 U.S. Customers (presumably customers of Equifax and not consumers). We also know now that Equifax could have prevented this whole thing from happening, but left the door wide open to hackers.

The risk to your Social Security benefits

Now, it looks like your private information and stolen credit card details may not be the only things you need to worry about. If your Social Security number was one that was stolen, your Social Security benefits could also be affected.

In the aftermath of the Equifax breach, everyone's attention has been on the (highly likely) possibility that the crooks will use this stolen information to open up credit cards and rack up charges using others' details. But, what you might not realize, hackers could also run off with your Social Security income.

Related: Don't sign up for Equifax's free credit monitoring - Here's what to do instead

If you're currently receiving Social Security benefits, there's really nothing stopping these criminals from changing your payments and redirecting them to another bank account. This means they could easily keep your money for themselves, leaving you in a serious bind.

As for those of us who aren't yet tapping into our Social Security benefits, the hackers could target us too. Using data from the Equifax breach, hackers could begin filing for your benefits once you become eligible, and have them sent to another address. This means they could run off with the funds you've paid into the system, and this could happen for years before you notice something is even wrong.

In each of these scenarios, one of the worst things is that you would then face the burden of proving your identity to the Social Security Administration. And it's going to be a tough fight, because the SSA relies on the three major credit reporting bureaus - as in, Equifax - for most of its information.

How to protect yourself

We've already shared why it's critical that you place a freeze on your credit, but now you'll need to be more vigilant.

Those receiving Social Security benefits:

If you're currently receiving benefits, keep a close eye on the payments. If a payment is missed, report it quickly. Don't wait! And, be sure to keep all your documentation handy in case you do need to prove who you are to the SSA.

Those not receiving Social Security benefits:

For anyone who hasn't yet filed to claim their benefits, things are going to be a bit more tricky. If you're not receiving a regular check in the mail, it's more difficult to detect suspicious activity.

To fight off fraud, your best bet is to monitor your credit reports closely. It's unlikely that the hackers would target you with only one scam. So, if you begin to notice suspicious activity on your credit reports, it's a good indicator that something more could be going on.

Vigilance will be key in protecting yourself. If you believe someone may be trying to interfere with your benefits, you can contact the Social Security Administration to see if someone has taken out benefits in your name. (You'll find the phone number and email address to the SSA by clicking here.)

Additional safety steps to take

Having your information stolen in a data breach can bring you problems for years down the road, possibly even your entire lifetime. That's why victims need to be on the lookout for even more scams. If your data was compromised, please take extra caution and watch out for the following schemes:

Watch your bank accounts - You should already be frequently checking your bank statements, looking for suspicious activity. It's even more critical when credit card data has been exposed through a data breach. If you see anything that seems strange, report it to your bank immediately.

Beware of phishing scams - Scammers will try and piggyback on data breaches like this. They will create phishing emails, pretending to be from the affected company, hoping to get victims to click on malicious links that could lead to more problems. Take our phishing IQ test to see if you can spot a fake email.

Freeze your credit - We mentioned this above, but it's so important that we're saying it again. Taking this step can prevent some criminal from stealing your identity. We have the steps you need to follow, so click here and do it now while you're thinking of it.

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