PrevNEXT

How Social Security Numbers Work

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 

Social Security Number Protection

When Social Security numbers were created by the U.S. government, they really were intended for just one use — tracking a worker's earnings over the years, for the purpose of calculating retirement benefits. But over time, because we don't have a national ID card in the U.S., SSNs became a de facto form of national ID as well. Over time, the government, banks and other businesses began to ask for Americans' SSNs on forms and use them to tell people apart [source: Jeffries].

Unfortunately, that's made SSNs a valuable commodity for crooks, because they can use the number to impersonate someone and steal his or her identity and unlock everything from financial accounts to government benefits, and even personal medical information. [source: Bushwick]. Theft of SSNs is a major factor in identity fraud losses that reached $56 billion in 2020 [source: Javelin].

Advertisement

Experts suggest you take the following steps to lessen your chances of becoming a victim:

  • Don't carry your Social Security card, passport or birth certificate in your purse or wallet.
  • Don't share your SSN when it isn't necessary. For purchases and business transactions other than banking, trading stock or buying property, it isn't necessary [source: SSA].
  • Be wary of scammers who call and impersonate government officials and try to trick you into providing personal data such as your SSN [source: SSA].
  • Don't throw out documents that contain your SSN without shredding them.
  • Request a copy of your Social Security Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement at least every three years to make sure the information in your file is correct. (You can do this online through Social Security's My Social Security website.)
  • Be aware of what's on your credit report, and watch for incorrect information that indicates someone might be committing identity theft. You're entitled to obtain a free copy of your reports from each of the three major credit bureaus each year.

What If I Find Out Someone Else Is Using My SSN?

First, you should call the police and contact the Social Security Administration Fraud Hotline, which is operated by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), an independent law enforcement agency that investigates violations connected with SSA programs. These violations include the following:

  • Misuse of an SSN
  • False statements on claims
  • Misrepresentation or concealment of facts affecting eligibility
  • False statements made to obtain an SSN
  • Crimes involving SSA employees
  • Conflict-of-interest and standards-of-conduct violations
  • Mismanagement and/or waste of funds

You will need to provide detailed information about the crime or fraud being committed against you. Investigators at the fraud hotline will review this information and determine the best course of action. If you would rather remain anonymous, you can do so, but this can make solving your problem more difficult. After your initial report, you will be contacted by an investigator for additional information.

The SSA and the OIG won't help with credit problems caused by someone misusing your Social Security number. Instead, you will need to work with credit card companies and credit reporting agencies to correct the problem and alert them that someone has been making fraudulent use of your SSN. The three major credit reporting bureaus are:

  • Equifax - (800) 525-6285
  • TransUnion - (800) 680-7289
  • Experian - (888) 397-3742

Social Security Fraud Hotline

If you suspect someone of committing fraud or abuse against Social Security, contact the fraud hotline at 800-269-0271 or submit a report online here [source: SSA].

Originally Published: Jun 16, 2000

Related Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Borland, Jim. "Need to Change Your Name on Your Social Security Card?" Social Security Administration. Dec. 9, 2021. ( Jan. 4, 2022) https://blog.ssa.gov/need-to-change-your-name-on-your-social-security-card/
  • Javelin Strategy. "2021 Identity Fraud Study: Shifting Angles." Javelin Strategy. (Jan. 4, 2022) https://www.javelinstrategy.com/content/2021-identity-fraud-report-shifting-angles-identity-fraud
  • Jeffries, Adrianne. "Identity crisis: how Social Security numbers became our insecure national ID." The Verge. Sept. 26, 2012. (Jan. 3, 2021) https://www.theverge.com/2012/9/26/3384416/social-security-numbers-national-ID-identity-theft-nstic
  • Kagan, Julia. "Social Security Number (SSN)." Investopedia. Sept. 20, 2021. (Jan. 3, 2021) https://www.investopedia.com/terms/s/ssn.asp
  • National Center for Transgender Equality. "Know Your Rights: Social Security." National Center for Transgender Equality. (Jan. 4, 2022) https://transequality.org/know-your-rights/social-security
  • Office for Victims of Crime. "Identity Theft and Financial Fraud." Office for Victims of Crime. (Jan. 4, 2022) https://ovc.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh226/files/pubs/ID_theft/idtheftlaws.html
  • Singletary, Michelle. "No, that's not the government calling threatening to 'suspend' your Social Security number." Washington Post. July 8, 2019. (Jan. 3, 2021) https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/07/08/no-thats-not-government-calling-threatening-suspend-your-social-security-number/
  • Social Security Administration. "Can I change my Social Security number?" Social Security Administration. (Jan. 4, 2022) https://faq.ssa.gov/en-us/Topic/article/KA-02220
  • Social Security Administration. "The First Social Security Number and the Lowest Number." Social Security Administration. (Jan. 4, 2022) https://www.ssa.gov/history/ssn/firstcard.html
  • Social Security Administration. "Frequently Asked Questions." Social Security Administration. (Jan. 4, 2022) https://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10064.pdfhttps://www.ssa.gov/history/hfaq.html#:~:text=A%3A%20No.,after%20the%20number%20holder's%20death.
  • Social Security Administration. "Historical Background and Development Of Social Security." Social Security Administration. (Jan. 4, 2022) https://www.ssa.gov/history/briefhistory3.html
  • Social Security Administration. "Identity Theft and Your Social Security Number." July 2021. (Jan. 4, 2022)
  • Social Security Administration. "Origin of the Term 'Social Security.'" Social Security Bulletin. Spring 1992. (Jan. 4, 2022) https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/ssb/v55n1/v55n1p63.pdf
  • Social Security Administration. "Report to Congress on Options for Enhancing the Social Security Card." Social Security Administration. (Jan. 4, 2022) https://www.ssa.gov/history/reports/ssnreportc2.html
  • Social Security Administration. "Research Note #3: Details of Ida May Fuller's Payroll Tax Contributions." Social Security Administration. (Jan. 4, 2022) https://www.ssa.gov/history/idapayroll.ht
  • Social Security Administration. "Social Security Cards Issued by Woolworth." Social Security Administration. (Jan. 4, 2022) https://www.ssa.gov/history/ssn/misused.html
  • Social Security Administration. "Social Security Number and Card." Social Security Administration. (Jan. 4, 2022) https://www.ssa.gov/ssnumber/
  • Social Security Administration. "Social Security Numbers for Children." Social Security Administration. (Jan. 4, 2022) https://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10023.pdf
  • Social Security Administration. "Social Security Number Randomization." Social Security Administration. (Jan. 4, 2022) https://www.ssa.gov/employer/randomization.html
  • Social Security Administration. "Social Security Number Randomization Frequently Asked Questions." Social Security Administration. (Jan. 4, 2022) https://www.ssa.gov/employer/randomizationfaqs.html
  • Social Security Administration. "The SSN Numbering Scheme." (Jan. 4, 2022) https://www.ssa.gov/history/ssn/geocard.html
  • Social Security Administration. "Understanding the Benefits." Social Security Administration. January 2022 (Jan. 3, 2022) https://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10024.pdf

Featured