Losing your social security card or having your number compromised can be a scary feeling. You’ve been opened up to significant risks and you’ll need to take action as soon as possible. Whether you’ve lost your card, had your identity stolen, or both, there are ways you can protect yourself and get your life back in order quickly. Here’s an easy step-by-step guide to obtaining a new card, and what to watch out for when your social security number has been exposed.

Social security basics

A social security number is a nine-digit number issued by the U.S. government either at birth or the time of citizenship. The number of years you’ve worked as well as your earnings over a lifetime are tracked using this number. Once you reach retirement, your social security number is used to determine your eligibility for benefits. This will help determine any social security income you may qualify for.

Your social security number is also used as a form of identification. You’ll use it to become employed, open accounts with financial institutions, when applying for a passport or driver’s license and when filing your taxes, Medicaid or any other government aid. When you misplace, lose or have your social security card stolen, the good news is, the Social Security Administration will provide you with up to ten replacement cards in your lifetime and up to three a year.

What to do when your card has been lost or stolen

Losing your card can be unsettling but there are some critical first steps that you can take to minimize any damages to your identity. First, you’ll want to visit the Social Security Administration website to claim your account if you haven’t already. This will give you access to your social security profile where you can order a replacement card, change your address when you move, print benefits statements and check the accuracy of your earnings over the years.

Once on the website, you can order a replacement card using the proper credentials. You’ll need a birth certificate or adoption certificate, passport or religious record to confirm your identity. You also, of course, must already be a U.S. citizen over the age of 18. While doing this online is the fastest way to go, you can also apply through the mail or in person.

Ordering a replacement card is one of the fastest ways to prevent identity theft. The sooner the Social Security Administration knows about the lost card, the better.

Once you realize your card has been stolen, here’s a step-by-step guide to obtaining a new card and completing the application:

1. Visit the My Social Security Administration website to find out which documents you need to verify your identity, age, and citizenship

2. If you’re applying online, fill out and complete the application there

3. If you’re applying through the mail, you’ll need to print out an application to fill out and mail it in

5. You may also be able to take in your application and documents in person to a local Social Security Administration office if you prefer. On their website, you’ll find a handy locator tool to find the office nearest you

Stopping and preventing future fraud

To avoid losing or misplacing your social security card in the first place, try and keep it in a safe place outside of your wallet. Your wallet is more likely to get lost or stolen then a safe in your home so keeping your social security card separate may be your best bet. You’ll rarely ever need to flash your card in person so just make sure to memorize the number and keep it in a safe place.

As soon as you realize your card has been lost or stolen you should put a freeze on your credit with all three credit bureaus. This will prevent someone from using your number to open a new account or accessing accounts in your name. You can also download a free copy of your credit report every year from annualcreditreport.com. This is the only website authorized to obtain one by the Federal Trade Commission.

You may also want to call your banking and credit card companies and alert them so they can flag any abnormal activity. In the future, there are a few things to keep in mind about giving out your social security number. Many times, people will ask you for your social security number to verify your identity but there may be other ways you can do this. Avoid giving it out unless it’s truly needed.

For medical purposes, for example, you can often be identified through ways other than your social security number. When filling out paperwork, you may be able to leave the line blank and no one will ask you for it. Aside from locking up your social security card and not carrying it around, the same goes for documents containing your social security number. Tax returns, job applications, or medical forms should be placed in a safe place away from potential home invaders. A safe that can’t easily be carried or somewhere not obviously hidden may work as well. A safety deposit box at your bank is also a great option.

Anything like this you that store digitally, make sure it’s encrypted and kept in a secure, password protected place. Saving a tax return on the desktop of your laptop without a password, for example, isn’t the best choice.