social security cardGiven how important your social security number is, as it helps you get everything from credit to a place to live, your social security card is possibly one of the most valuable things you own. Unfortunately, like your wallet or cell phone, your social security card is something that can be very easily lost or stolen, which means if it ever goes missing, you’ll need to be proactive to deal with the consequences. Keep reading to learn the best course of action for dealing with lost or stolen social security cards.

Identify why your social security card is missing

Since the Social Security Administration requires you to take different steps for a lost vs. stolen social security card, you’ll need to identify if your card is lost or stolen. Once you determine that, you can take the appropriate steps.

If your card is lost …

If your card is lost in your house or somewhere else, you can contact the Social Security Administration and ask for a replacement card by filling out a form and attaching at least one of these documents to prove your identity. If you’re a legal immigrant or were born outside the U.S., you’ll also have to provide documents proving your U.S. citizenship or current, lawful, work-authorized status. If you’re unsure which type of documents will qualify, the application itself provides a full list of acceptable documents to attach. Once your application is complete and has the correct documents, it can be mailed to the Social Security Administration, dropped off at a local Social Security Administration office or (for qualifying individuals) filled out online. Keep in mind that all replacement requests are free, so if you find yourself being charged for this service, it’s likely a scam. You should also note that you’re limited to three replacement cards in a year and 10 in a lifetime. These don’t include cards issued for legal name changes, some immigration status changes or hardships caused by identity theft.

If your card is stolen …

If your social security card was stolen, there are a lot more steps you need to take. To start, you should follow the steps above to get a replacement social security card. Even if you know your social security number, a reissued card might help you prove your identity. Additionally, you may want to file a police report because it’s a great way to go on record about the fact that your social security number might be compromised. This step is especially important in cases of familiar fraud, where a friend or family member steals your social security card or number. In many of these instances, since the victim fails to file a police report, they sometimes aren’t taken seriously when they complain about identity theft after the fact.

Next, you’ll need to contact the three credit bureaus to place a fraud alert on your credit reports. Alternatively, you can choose to freeze your credit if you have reason to suspect the person who stole your card will immediately try to abuse your identity. Otherwise, the decision to place a fraud alert or a credit freeze is yours to make. While in many cases, freezing your credit makes sense, if you’re interested in borrowing money from a lender in the immediate future, you may choose to hold off on freezing it until after the credit card, loan or other account is opened because freezing your credit beforehand will not allow the lender to access it. Regardless of what you decide, you should keep a close eye on your credit – ideally with credit monitoring or identity theft protection – so that you’re ready to freeze it should suspicious activity arise in your name. If you opt to use a credit monitoring or identity theft protection service, just be sure it’s one that monitors all three of your credit reports and provides real-time alerts of activity on your credit reports — most of the services we review offer exactly that.

Finally, you might feel the need to get a new social security number; however, the Social Security Administration requires a high burden of proof that your current number is being abused before it issues you a new one. This, unfortunately, means you can’t get a new social security number until you’ve already experienced some form of identity theft or hardship as a result of the social security number theft. Even after you meet this requirement, to get the new SSN, you’ll have to provide evidence supporting the need for your request. As such, it might be easier to work with other solutions, like getting an Identity Protection PIN to help you deal with tax identity theft, freezing your credit and/or using fraud alerts. Although these solutions aren’t as comprehensive as using a new social security number, they still provide powerful forms of protection against specific threats you might encounter.

Assuming you can successfully get a new social security number, know that you might not be completely out of the woods. One of the reasons new social security numbers are such a headache is because they cause problems of their own. While the government can issue you a new number, that’s no guarantee that other institutions, like your credit card issuer or the credit bureaus, will update their records. Getting every entity who you’ve shared your social security number with to all update their existing records can be an uphill battle. Furthermore, a new SSN, if not properly linked to your existing number, can make it look like your credit history has been wiped clean. This is, unfortunately, a process you have no control over as lenders and institutions use their own databases to pull your information.

How can you keep your social security card safe?

With all of the difficulties associated with replacing your social security number, your best bet is to make sure it never gets lost or stolen in the first place. Here’s some advice to aid you in doing just that:

1. Never carry your social security card on your person. This is likely something that most people don’t do anymore, but it’s worth repeating. Under no circumstances should you have your social security card in your pocket or wallet. If you have to carry it on you, for whatever reason, make sure that it’s well hidden and that you’re only carrying it for a short amount of time — you should never store it in your wallet, which brings us to our next point.

2. Have a secure storage space for your card. Ideally, you should have a place you keep important documentation in the case of a disaster or emergency, and it’s in your best interest to store any identifying or personal documents there all the time, as it can protect your identity even when you aren’t facing imminent danger. A secure place can be something like a fireproof safe or even a deposit box at your local bank. Wherever you choose to store it, just make sure you can retrieve your card if you need it.

3. Avoid sharing your card. While sharing your social security number is often unavoidable, you should definitely avoid sharing your card, and use other forms of identification, if possible. For example, although employment requires I-9 verification, you can opt to use documents other than your social security card, such as a valid passport, for the verification process. When you hand someone your social security card, you risk it being photocopied or lost, which could lead to problems down the line.

For more information about protecting your identity and credit, keep reading our identity theft protection blog.