When you work and pay Social Security taxes, the government keeps a record of that activity so it knows what type of benefit you're entitled to in the future. And your Social Security number is what helps the government keep track of your earnings. You can find that number on your Social Security card, and you'll often need it when you do things like open a new bank account, take out a loan, or apply for a job.

But what happens when the wrong person gets a hold of your Social Security number? If you're not careful, someone could use that number to steal your identity and make your life miserable in the process. If you suspect that this has happened to you, you may be wondering whether you can get a new Social Security number. The quick answer is that you can, though it may not solve all your problems.

Social Security card

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Applying for a new Social Security number

If you suspect that your Social Security number has been stolen, you should contact the Social Security Administration's fraud hotline at 1-800-269-0271 and report it immediately. But you still may want a new Social Security number to avoid financial problems down the line. The good news is that the Social Security Administration will issue you a new number if you can prove that your original number has been misused. To get one, however, you must apply in person.

Keep in mind that a new Social Security number won't necessarily be a fix-all if you've been a victim of identity theft. Government agencies or credit bureaus might retain records under your old number, which may lead to confusion when you apply for any sort of financing or loan. Furthermore, any credit history damage caused by having your initial Social Security number stolen might haunt you even once you have a new number to work with. And on the flip side, your new Social Security number won't have a credit history attached to it, which could cause problems when you're looking to borrow money. Your best bet, therefore, is to safeguard your original Social Security number so that it doesn't fall into the wrong person's hands.

Protecting your Social Security number

Keeping your Social Security number secure is one of the best ways to avoid identity theft and the financial issues that can come with it. To this end, always store your Social Security card in a safe place -- there's no need to carry it around in your wallet, and doing so increases your risk of losing it.

Additionally, be careful about giving out your Social Security number -- don't ever give it to someone who solicits it out of the blue. Along these lines, be sure to shred documents you no longer need that feature your Social Security number. A small $30 device that you stick in the corner of your home could prevent a world of financial hurt.

At the same time, it pays to monitor activity related to your Social Security number by setting up an account on the Social Security Administration's website and logging on every so often. What sort of activity might you uncover? For one thing, someone could conceivably get a hold of your number, use it to file for benefits on your behalf if you haven't done so already, and send that money to a bank account you can't access. This type of scam could go on for years without your being any the wiser -- especially if, say, a criminal files for Social Security benefits on your record when you're 62, and you're not planning to claim benefits for five more years. Being vigilant can alert you to problems you'll need to address right away.