Social Security serves as a key source of income for countless retirees, many of whom wouldn't manage to pay the bills without those benefits. Unfortunately, those same seniors are frequently targeted by scammers in an effort to steal not just their identities, but those crucial benefits as well. That's why it's so important to take steps to avoid Social Security fraud, whether you're already receiving benefits or are years away from retirement. That means keeping your personal information, including your Social Security number, away from criminals, checking your credit report regularly, and reaching out to law enforcement or the Social Security Administration (SSA) if you feel you've been compromised.

Safeguard key documents

The easiest ways for crooks to steal your identity or Social Security benefits is to get their hands on enough personal information that they're able to pretend to be you. To prevent this from happening, keep all important documents under lock and key -- especially those that contain your Social Security number. You can store such documents in a home safe or safety deposit box at the bank. Better yet, shred documents containing personal information once you no longer need them to minimize your chances of exposure.

Senior man looking distressed

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

Furthermore, resist the urge to carry your Social Security card around with you. It's hardly the sort of thing you'll need to whip out on a regular basis, so it's much safer at home.

Read up on Social Security scams and know what to avoid

Unfortunately, there's a host of Social Security scams out there, and while each may be different, you can learn to spot similar patterns throughout. For one thing, you'll get some sort of unsolicited communication, whether in the form of a letter, email, or phone call. Furthermore, you'll be asked to provide personal information, which will generally include either a credit card number, bank account number, or Social Security number (or a combination thereof).

Now as a general rule, you should never give out personal information unless you initiate the exchange -- meaning, it's one thing if you contact a government agency and are asked for personal data, but if someone contacts you for so-called official purposes, hang up or ask for the option to call back and verify the legitimacy of that inquiry. Chances are, the person will drop the call faster than you can say "gotcha."

Monitor your credit

Sometimes, Social Security fraud begins years before you're eligible to receive benefits. If someone gets his or her hands on your personal information when you're younger, that person can then use that data to file for benefits in your name later on. That's why it's crucial to keep tabs on your credit -- and you can do that by reviewing your credit report each year. Once you spot something out of the ordinary, like a loan or outstanding debt you never took on yourself, you can take action before your Social Security payments wind up in the wrong hands.

Retain Social Security documents

That pile of earnings statements you have from the SSA? Don't be too quick to shred it. You should keep that paperwork on hand in case you end up falling victim to Social Security fraud later on. That way, you'll have an easier time proving that you're the rightful recipient of your benefits if they end up in somebody else's hands.

Report all suspicions of fraud

If you have reason to believe that someone has gotten hold of your Social Security number, or, worse yet, your benefits, it's important to act immediately. Contact the SSA either online or by phone and seek advice on what to do. You may need to take steps to prove that you are who you say you are, but that's why it's a smart idea to retain old documents from the SSA. Furthermore, don't hesitate to contact the Federal Trade Commission if you feel your identity has been stolen, including your Social Security number.

Though Social Security fraud is a major problem, the good news is that you can take steps to help ensure that it doesn't happen to you. The more vigilant you are, the less likely your hard-earned benefits are to wind up in a criminal's hands.

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