When it comes to protecting your Social Security number, there is a crucial step you should take: Sign up for an online account with the Social Security Administration.
The agency no longer mails statements to individuals who are under 60 that include information such as your earnings and estimated benefits. Instead, you are now encouraged to create an online My Social Security account.
But many individuals have yet to sign up. According to a March survey by MassMutual, 86 percent of individuals ages 50 to 59 have not created an account, despite the fact that they will no longer receive statements in the mail.
Leaving that undone can create an opportunity for identity thieves to set up an account in your name. And they may even try to claim benefits under your record.
More from Fixed Income Strategies:
How to avoid the Social Security check blues
These Social Security myths can wipe you out
Few are prepared for this $280K retirement expense
"If somebody has your Social Security number, then they would have a much easier time setting up an account under your Social Security number if you haven't already set up that access," said financial advisor Mark G. Smith, president of Vision Wealth Planning.
You may be especially at risk if your personal financial information has been compromised in an online breach. As many as 147.9 million consumers were affected when credit-scoring company Equifax unintentionally leaked private information last year — the largest breach on record.
"There's a pretty reasonable likelihood that the Equifax breach last year probably aggravated this," Smith said.
Where to start
When you establish a My Social Security account, you should be prompted to use multifactor authentication. Once you log in with your username and password, you will also be prompted to enter a security code sent to you by either phone or email.
Once you are in your account, the first thing you should verify is that no claims have been made using your Social Security number. This is particularly important for those who are retirement age, Smith said.
"It will be very obvious whether benefits have been claimed or not," Smith said.
Next, check to see that your earnings record is correct.
"That's not a fraud thing," Smith said. "That's making sure your record is being properly recorded."
You have a limited time window to correct any errors: three years, three months and 15 days from the end of those wages' tax year. After that time, those earnings are a permanent part of your record.
If you're under 60, it is especially imperative to set up an online account.
The Social Security Administration only mails paper statements to individuals who are 60 and over who are not receiving benefits and do not have an online account.
Logging on to your online Social Security account also enables you to order a replacement Social Security card, get a copy of your benefit verification letter or print out your statement, according to David Freitag, a financial planning consultant and Social Security expert at MassMutual.
And while accessing an online account is easy, most people don't monitor their Social Security benefits with the same vigilance that they apply to their 401(k) plan accounts, Freitag said.
"My feeling is, people just take Social Security for granted," Freitag said. "In every case, you need to track it and see what's going on."