Social Security provides critical benefits to millions of Americans, but sometimes, that money winds up in the wrong hands. Social Security fraud is such a problem that last week, the Social Security Administration (SSA), along with its Office of the Inspector General (OIG), announced that it will be opening three new units to investigate and prevent fraud specifically related to the program's disability benefits.

Of course, all Social Security recipients are at risk of fraud, and that includes retirees who count on their benefits to pay the bills. Therefore, while it's good to see that the SSA is being proactive in protecting its resources, here are some steps you can take, as an individual, to avoid becoming a victim.

Social Security card being held between someone's fingers


1. Keep your Social Security number safe

Once a criminal gains access to your Social Security number, it's easy enough for that person to not only steal your benefits but your identity as a whole. Therefore, it's important that you keep your Social Security number away from would-be thieves.

You can go about this in a number of ways. First, keep your actual Social Security card tucked away in a safe, or someplace similarly secure. Unlike your credit cards or health insurance card, there's no need to carry your Social Security card around with you, and doing so only increases the risk of the wrong person getting his hands on it. Additionally, be sure to property dispose of all documents that contain your Social Security number. If you no longer need financial statements with that number, for example, invest in a shredder rather than toss them away in the trash.

2. Never give out your Social Security number to an unsolicited caller or emailer

Unfortunately, there's a host of Social Security scams out there designed to target innocent people who aren't savvy enough to recognize them. So here's a general rule to follow: Never give someone your Social Security number if that person is contacting you out of the blue, whether by phone, email, or regular mail. Furthermore, if you are going to give out your Social Security number for a legitimate reason -- say, on a job application -- ask what steps the recipient plans to take to safeguard it.

3. Keep in touch with the SSA

If you do receive some sort of communication asking for your Social Security number, and know or suspect that it's fraud, contact the SSA online or by phone and seek its advice. If anything, reporting that potential crime might spare others from falling victim to theft.

4. Track your Social Security payments

If you're already collecting Social Security, familiarizing yourself with your payment schedule could help stop criminals in their tracks. The SSA has a preset schedule that determines when recipients get their benefits. Pay attention to it and check your bank account when you expect that money to hit. If it doesn't come through when it's supposed to, contact the SSA at once so that it can investigate. The sooner you respond, the less damage a criminal has the potential to do.

5. Monitor your Social Security account online

It's fairly easy to figure out when your benefits have been stolen if you're on Social Security and those payments suddenly stop coming through. But what happens when you've yet to file a claim for benefits? Unfortunately, someone can get ahold of your Social Security number, file benefits on your behalf, direct those payments to a bank account he controls, and run away with them.

That's why it pays to create a Social Security account online and check it regularly. If you suddenly see that a benefit payment has been issued to you, but you didn't actually file yet, you'll know to contact the SSA immediately.

While it's good to see that the SSA is fighting back against fraud, that doesn't mean the rest of us are off the hook. The more vigilant you are in protecting yourself, the lower your chances of becoming a victim.