9 very valuable digits
Your Social Security number is the key to your financial castle. Armed with those precious nine digits, identity thieves can rip off your good name and credit to set up new accounts and loans or rob your existing accounts.
High-tech schemes to steal your "Social" use deceptive phishing emails, spyware or keystroke software that copy your passwords for online banking or other accounts. Low-tech methods include stealing wallets and dumpster-diving for unshredded bank statements.
No matter how crooks get your number, the turmoil they will spin into your life could take you months and thousands of dollars to resolve. In 2010, 8.6 million U.S. households were touched by identity theft and lost $13.3 billion as a result, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey.
"Of any piece of personal information, the Social Security number is the most critical to safeguard," says Lisa Schifferle, an attorney in the Federal Trade Commission's Division of Privacy and Identity Protection. "It's the golden ticket to identity theft," she says, adding that government watchdogs field more complaints about identity theft than anything else.
Here are four things you must know to protect your Social Security number.