Nicki Minaj social security number theftCelebrities are just as at risk to identity theft as the average person — something rapper Nicki Minaj is finding out after a photo that contained her social security number was published by a media outlet last month. The old booking photo had her social security number on it, which the media outlet forgot to remove before making it public. As a result, Minaj’s credit score has dropped over 100 points due to a high number of inquiries on her credit report. Fortunately, she was informed of the security breach early, but many victims of this type of identity theft are not so lucky. Many people inadvertently have their social security numbers exposed and aren’t aware until long after it happens. The average time before a person discovers their social security number has been compromised is one year after the exposure, according to Yahoo! Finance. In that period of time, a lot of damage can be done to your credit and identity.

How can I prevent my social security number from being stolen?

There are a myriad of ways your social security number can be exposed and potentially stolen. Here are some tips to help keep it from happening:

1. Keep your social security card in a secure location. Don’t carry it around in your wallet or leave it in a desk drawer at home. Instead, store it somewhere secure, such as a lockbox or a folder in a locked filing cabinet. If you believe your social security card has been lost or stolen, report the theft to the Social Security Administration immediately. They can issue you a new card for free. Be sure to go through the SSA for a replacement, rather than a third-party website. Some fraudsters try to take advantage of people by claiming the process to get a new card is complicated or costly. It is not, and anyone who claims otherwise should be considered with suspicion.

2. Do not give your number out unless it is absolutely necessary. Sometimes you will be asked to provide your social security number on medical forms or rental applications. Whenever possible, you should avoid writing down or giving out your social security number. If it’s information they absolutely need, they’ll request that you add it, and in most cases, they won’t say anything. In general, the only entities who need your social security number are government agencies, banks and other financial institutions, employers and the IRS. Schools, landlords/property managers, utilities companies and medical offices do not need your number.

3. Ask as many questions as you can. If someone asks for your social security number, don’t hesitate to ask them any questions you can think of. Find out why they need it, what it will be used for, who it will be shared with and how it will be stored. If there aren’t any dire consequences for not giving them your social security number, know that you are in the right to refuse. In many cases, you won’t even be called out for failing to provide it.

4. Sign up for identity theft protection. These services monitor your personal information, including your social security number, on the Internet black market. They constantly monitor to ensure that your information is not being traded, sold or otherwise used illegally. If your social security number is being used by someone other than yourself, you will be notified immediately and the service will help you with restoring your identity and undoing some of the damage that has been done. Want to learn about the different services out there? Check out our identity theft protection reviews.

Can I get a new social security number?

Unfortunately, the answer is usually no. Unlike credit cards and bank account numbers, your social security number is assigned to you at birth and stays with you for your entire life. It’s a vital part of your identity, which is why it is so important to ensure that it stays safe. According to the Social Security Administration, if your social security number is being used by an identity thief, you must do everything possible to resolve the issue. If you are still having problems after that, you can request a new number — however, you must be able to prove that your number is being misused and it is causing significant, irreversible damage to your life. Additionally, as the SSA points out, a new number is not necessarily a blank slate. It may even create new problems such as the inability to get credit due to a lack of established credit history.

The exposure of celebrities’ personal and private information is a sign to the rest of us that identity theft can happen to anyone. It is important to take all the steps you can to protect yourself and your information. Follow our identity theft protection blog to learn more about how you can protect your identity in every aspect of your life.