By Laura Telford
As of June 2011, the Social Security Administration administers Social Security numbers randomly. Prior to this change, Social Security numbers were based, at least partially, on the geographical location of the recipient.
The Social Security program began in 1935 as part of the New Deal. Not every citizen has a Social Security number (SSN), but one is required for parents to claim their children as dependents for tax purposes. A Social Security number is made up of three sets of digits: The first set, often called the area number, is based on the zip code from which the recipient filed for his or her card. The second set is a two-digit group number between 01 and 99, though not assigned consecutively. The last set of digits is a four-digit serial number between 0001 and 9999, assigned sequentially based on group number.
The main issue with Social Security numbers in the modern era is that they were really never meant to be used as a form of unique identification. Even though there is no way to prove that a person’s Social Security number belongs to the person using it (there are no biometric identification characteristics to it), it is often viewed as the be-all and end-all of verification. Unfortunately, because of the way in which SSNs are generated, a person can come pretty close to guessing someone’s Social Security number if they know the date and place of the person’s birth. In fact, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University were able to come up with an algorithm to correctly calculate a person’s Social Security number using publicly available information.
Randomly generating Social Security numbers will be a big help in avoiding fraudulent usage of them. However, it does not do much to protect those Americans who were issued Social Security numbers prior to June 2011. Unless an existing Social Security number has been compromised or sequential numbers assigned to members of the same family are causing problems, new numbers will not be issued. According to the Social Security Administration (www.socialsecurity.gov/pubs/10064.html), you should treat your Social Security number as confidential information and avoid giving it out unnecessarily.
Identity thieves may get personal information by stealing your wallet, purse or mail (such as bank and credit card statements, pre-approved credit offers, new checks and tax information); by stealing personal information you provide to an unsecured site on the Internet; by going through your trash and stealing items that contain personal information; by making deceptive phone calls to trick you into disclosing your information; or by purchasing your information on the black market.
It is important that individuals show their Social Security card to a new employer so that their records are correct. They should also provide their Social Security number to their financial institution for tax reporting purposes. The card, and any other document that shows the Social Security number on it, should be kept in a safe place -- not routinely kept in a wallet or anywhere easily susceptible to theft.
In the case that you or a client should become a victim of identity theft, the U.S. Social Security Administration website provides some helpful information:
1) You should contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Or, you can call (877) IDTHEFT (877-438-4338); TTY (866) 653-4261. The FTC website is a one-stop national resource to learn about the crime of identity theft. It provides detailed information to help you deter, detect and defend against identity theft.
2) You also may want to contact the Internal Revenue Service. An identity thief might also use your Social Security number to file a tax return in order to receive a refund. If the thief files the tax return before you do, the IRS will believe you already filed and received your refund if eligible. If your Social Security number is stolen, another individual may use it to get a job. That person’s employer would report income earned to the IRS using your Social Security number, making it appear that you did not report all of your income on your tax return. If you think you may have tax issues because someone has stolen your identity, contact the IRS Identity Protection Unit or call (800) 908-4490.
3) Also, you should file an online complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) at www.ic3.gov. The IC3 gives victims of cyber crime a convenient and easy-to-use reporting mechanism that alerts authorities of suspected criminal or civil violations. IC3 sends every complaint to one or more law enforcement or regulatory agencies that have jurisdiction over the matter. IC3’s mission is to receive, develop and refer criminal complaints regarding the rapidly expanding arena of cyber crime. For law enforcement and regulatory agencies at the federal, state, local and international level, IC3 provides a central referral mechanism for complaints involving Internet related crimes. The IC3 reflects a partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National White Collar Crime Center and the Bureau of Justice Assistance.
4) You also should monitor your credit report periodically. Free credit reports are available online at AnnualCreditReport.com.
Randomly generating Social Security numbers will go a long way in protecting the safety of Americans’ personal information. With the threat posed by identity thieves, however, it is crucial for all individuals to guard their numbers carefully.
For more information, contact Sarah Hofmann, Public Information Officer, at (512) 478-9000 ext. 324 or