Social Security fraud hits N’siders; officials say number growing

Northsider Andy Sweat was surprised to discover he applied for social security disability, especially since he found out about his application while he was at work in his downtown law office.

Sweat joins other Northsiders plus millions of Americans each year who are victims of identity theft.

And the scary part is, he’s not sure how his information was stolen.

“I don’t know how someone could have gotten my number. I’ll probably be more attentive in destroying or discarding documents that have my social security number on them,” he said.

Last year, 2.7 million people in the United States reported being victims of identity theft, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

In Mississippi, the attorney general’s office reported opening 70 identity fraud cases, according to the agency’s annual report.

John O’Hara, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Mississippi, believes the numbers locally and nationally are much higher.

However, he said some people don’t report because they’re too embarrassed to do so. Others simply might not know they’ve been victimized.

“People ... don’t want others to know,” he said. “You should report this kind of stuff. That’s how agencies build their cases.”

As for not knowing, O’Hara said some individuals don’t find out their information has been compromised until they attempt to use their social security number, such as when filing taxes or applying for credit. 

“They find out a return has already been filed with their social security number,” he said. “It’s different than credit card fraud, but it’s flat identity theft.”

One Northsider learned that someone had filed for an income tax refund with her number. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) notified her because it didn’t fit her “pattern.” The following year, when filing tax returns, she was required to have an affidavit plus additional paperwork. And then two years later someone attempted to apply for a credit card with her number.

 

Sweat learned about the fraudulent activity against him when he received a letter from the Social Security Administration.

“It said I should call their office and that they needed to talk to me about my earnings record,” he said. “It said call before July 5 and gave me a name to ask for and an extension.

“It looked official. It had my social security number on it, and looked like other things that I had gotten from the (administration),” he said. “I called them, dialed the extension and they told me they thought someone had applied for disability benefits using my social security number.”

“They asked me if I had applied and I told them I had not,” the healthy attorney said.

Sweat’s case was turned over to the Office of the Inspector General, which is now investigating the case.

He asked the agency to keep him abreast of the case and let him know how his information was stolen.

“They said I could check with the (inspector general) … at the conclusion of the investigation and they may provide it to me. I told them I would like to know how someone got my number.”

O’Hara said it’s difficult to determine how information is stolen, especially in the age of the Internet.

On Facebook, many people post their dates of birth and their addresses, which thieves then can use to gather other information.

Data can also be collected through malware and from clicking on pop-up ads.

“Maybe don’t put the year you were born (on Facebook). Most of your relatives should know when your birthday is,” he said.

Millions of people have also had their information stolen through data breaches.

More than 8,000 data breaches occurred in 2017, exposing the personal data in an estimated one billion files, a Wallet Hub article states.  

One of the biggest last year was the Equifax breach. Nearly 146 million people had their social security numbers stolen when the credit reporting agency’s database was compromised, according to a May 2018 report from NBC News. 

Information collected from those breaches, in turn, is sold on the black market.

“So much information is out there that people could establish credit, buy a car, or put a down payment on a house,” O’Mara said. “They need your social security number, date of birth and address, and they’re off to the races.”

 

In addition to hacking, crooks steal information through the physical theft of wallets and purses, mail theft, sifting through garbage or posing as a person who legitimately needs a victim’s information.

Sweat was worried the letter he received was fraudulent. He called the administration to verify the letter was for real, but only after he called the number on the notification.  

Luckily, the letter was in fact legitimate.

O’Hara said individuals who receive a questionable letter in the mail should go online and contact the agency via the number on the Web site.

Additionally, agencies like the IRS and SSA will only communicate with individuals through direct mail.

Individuals can also pay for credit protection services, which notify them to changes in their credit activity.

As for Sweat, his social security number was flagged by the SSA.

Flagging the number lets the agency know that someone attempted to use his number fraudulently. It also means that he’ll have to apply for social security benefits in person, when in fact he does apply.

SSA also recommended that he contact the credit bureaus to inform them of the fraud as well.

“I just felt like it was an inconvenience - a little bit of time out of my day,” he said. “I was not surprised that something like this happened.”

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