Social Security Numbers Go Random

Robert Capwell

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Social Security Card ID Theft resized 600Since its inception in 1936, the Social Security Administration has been assigning nine-digit Social Security Numbers to track the wages earned by workers in the United States and to track earnings over the course of their lifetime to calculate retirement benefits.  The algorithm used in the past included a three-digit area number; followed by a two-digit group number; and ended in a four-digit serial number.  Since 1972, Social Security Number cards have been issued centrally; however, the first three-digits were determined by the zip code which reflected the state of issue as provided by the address of the applicant. This sequence along with the group number can be analyzed to determine the SSN holder’s year of birth or year of issue, and also the state of issue for each SSN. 

The only issue with this process is the number of available Social Security Numbers by state do not coincide with the population growth in each state over time; leaving millions of numbers unusable in certain states and the process created a shortage in other states as there was no way to determine growth patterns by state over time.  Currently, there are 420 million numbers left to be assigned; however, the current assignment process limits the number that can be assigned.  The new process of “Randomization” will make these numbers available across all states and add to the longevity of the nine-digit sequence.  This thought process has been in the works for years as the Social Security Administration announced its intent to randomize SSN assignments on July 3, 2007 in the Federal Register Notice, Protecting the Integrity of Social Security Numbers”.

Here is how the new random process will change SSN assignments:

  • It will eliminate the geographical significance of the first three digits of the SSN, currently referred to as the area number, by no longer allocating the area numbers for assignment to individuals in specific states.
  • It will eliminate the significance of the highest group number and, as a result, the High Group List will be frozen in time and can be used for validation of SSNs issued prior to the randomization implementation date of June 25, 2011.
  • Previously unassigned area numbers will be introduced for assignment excluding area numbers 000, 666 and 900-999.

Not only will the randomization process bring into play unused Social Security Numbers, it will also help protect U.S. citizens against identity theft as random assignment makes it more difficult to reconstruct an SSN using publically available information. 

The Down Side Of This Change
Many businesses, like background screening firms, rely on a cursory pre-validation of the Social Security Number to determine if an SSN is a valid sequence.  This helps to determine potential data-entry errors in keying in an SSN for a background screening request or the possibility of an applicant supplying a false or altered SSN to hide potential derogatory information or to establish a different identity to gain employment under a different or bogus name and SSN with manufactured credentials.  Although many employers, education institutions and government entities only provide truncated or partial social security numbers as a validation source, many still use the entire number to validate identity; however, it is more secure to only display or make a partial number available for viewing to protect the consumer against identity theft.  Background checks are typically done on individuals at a working age and won’t affect businesses using this validation process for several years; however, individuals naturalized (at any age) within the United States and issued a SSN card will be assigned a number under the new random program.  In addition, requests can be made to the Social Security Administration to change your current number and listed below are a few reasons why you may request an updated/random SSN:

  • If you object to the numbers within your SSN with concerns of religious beliefs or cultural traditions
  • The sequence of your SSN is close to other family members and it’s causing a problem between family members
  • If you are a victim of identity theft and you are continually disadvantaged based on your original number
  • If you are a victim of harassment, abuse or life endangerment that may result in domestic violence.

Employers, background screening firms, and companies that rely on this sequential validation process will be unable to validate the new SSN.  The SSA will still provide an opportunity for employers and third-parties to validate a name and SSN through the Social Security Number Verification Service program which is available to employers; or through the Consent-Based SSN Verification Service available to enrolled private companies and government agencies for a fee.  The Department of Homeland Security’s E-Verify program is also available to Employers and Employer Designated Agents to validate an SSN.

Contact EBI today to learn more about EBI’s employment eligibility solutions. EBI offers electronic Form I-9 and E-Verify solutions to properly identify your next new-hire and keep your company compliant.  EBI is a proud supporter and an approved designated Agent for the Department of Homeland Security.

Employment Background Investigations, Inc. is committed to providing employers with valuable education, news and resources around background screening, drug testing, occupational healthcare and employment eligibility.  All content provided by EBI is published for the convenience of its readers and should never be deemed as legal guidance or advice.  Always consult your legal counsel for specific advice on local laws and industry regulations.

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Robert Capwell

Posted By: Robert Capwell

EBI’s Chief Knowledge Officer, Mr. Robert E. Capwell, is considered one of the leading experts in the background screening industry with over 22 years of experience in the field. Mr. Capwell was a contributing author of the second edition of the ASIS Pre-employment Background Screening Guidelines and has written numerous articles and whitepapers for various publications including a periodic column on background screening for The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Online. He has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, Human Resource Executive Magazine, Entrepreneur Magazine, and several HR-related publications. Mr. Capwell speaks regularly to industry colleagues and HR Professionals both nationally and internationally.

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