Like your fingerprints, your eye color and your name, you’ve likely had your social insurance number since you were born. Or, if you weren’t born in Canada, it was probably one of the first things you received after arriving in the country. Either way, the nine-digits of your SIN are about as much a part of your identity as anything else.
Originally established in the 1960s as an account number for those receiving government pensions, it has since expanded for use across a number of major government functions, from tracking taxes to employment data. Eventually, financial institutions began taking advantage of what had become a universal identifier for everyone living and working in Canada, using SINs to confirm their clients’ IDs.
Because of their role as an identifying tool for many citizens’ most sensitive transactions, identity thieves have made social insurance numbers a priority target as they seek to gain information about their victims they can use to conduct fraud.
In one of the more high-profile incidents in recent years, the Canada Revenue Agency announced during the 2014 tax season that hackers had stolen about 900 SINs from their computer system.
On its own, a social insurance number is not especially useful to fraudsters unless it is tied to a specific identity. However, as Dan Williams, senior call-taker supervisor at the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, explained, it’s a major first step for ID thieves.
“If all that was lost [from the CRA] was just a collection of SINs, from what we see, it would be appear that they wouldn’t be able to get much,” Mr. Williams told the Financial Post shortly after the CRA breach was announced. “Its name, date of birth, SIN. When [crooks] have all of that, then it’s easy for them to apply for cell phones, credit cards, the whole nine yards.”
In fact, cell phones and credit cards are just the tip of the iceberg. According to a fact sheet published by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, fraudsters who are able to pair your SIN with other personal information could also rent vehicles, equipment, hotel rooms, or any number of other items in your name, leaving you holding the bag for the charges.
As important as it is to keep your social insurance number private, it can be extremely difficult. After all, your SIN can exist in the servers of dozens of government agencies and financial firms, inside your own online accounts and on paper documents in your home all at once.
As Det. Ian Nichol from the Toronto Police’s financial crimes unit explained to the Financial Post, this varied virtual environment poses a unique challenge: “If someone breaks into your house and steals your wallet, you’ll find out about it fairly quickly,” Nichols told the Post in its article about the CRA breach. “But if someone breaks into your financial institution, you don’t know about it until they’ve gone out and abused it.”
To best protect your social insurance number from falling into the wrong hands, follow these tips:
Despite your best efforts, however, there is no surefire way to protect your identity altogether. For added security, consider signing up for a credit monitoring service like Credit Alert. We keep an eye trained on your credit files so we can notify you of certain activity that may indicate fraud. To learn more, contact us today!