For the average American, the Social Security Number holds special significance. It follows you from birth to death and can act as a key to a variety of sensitive information - bank accounts, tax returns, driver’s license information, residences, etc. However, even though you likely know your social by heart, you probably don’t know what those nine digits actually reveal. Today’s blog explores the history and significance of the social security number and how the SSN is used in the background screening industry.
A brief history of the Social Security Number
FDR’s passage of the Social Security Act of 1935 provided millions of Americans with a new financial safety net in the form of old age, disability, and survivor’s insurance, as well as supplemental security income for the elderly and disabled. The program is funded through Social Security taxes paid by employees and their employers and is available to individuals once they retire or otherwise become eligible. With the Act’s passage the Social Security Administration (SSA) needed an efficient means to track each citizen’s earning records over a lifetime and the social security number was born. Today, social security numbers have been issued to more than 450 million people (SSA.gov).
Dissecting the Social Security Number
The nine digit social security number is grouped into three parts– the area number, group number, and serial number.
The Area Number
The area number is the first grouping in the social security number. Originally, the area number indicated the location of the Social Security Administration office where an SSN was issued (state, territory, or possession) (SSA.gov). Individuals could apply at any office, so the area number was not an indication of where they lived or worked. This changed in 1972 when the Social Security Administration began issuing SSN’s from its Baltimore headquarters and assigning area numbers based on the applicant’s mailing address. Anyone who applied for a social security number between 1972 and 2011 will have an area number that correlates to the mailing address listed on their application (SSA.gov). However, the area number cannot be used to determine residence since you can have mail sent to any location. In 2011, the SSA changed the way area numbers are assigned yet again to a system called “randomization.” Anyone applying for an SSN after June 25, 2011 has received a randomized area number that has no correlation to any location (SSA.gov).
The Group Number
The middle section of numbers is simply there to make administration easier for the SSA. The group number ranges from 01 to 99 and allows Social Security Numbers with the same area number to be broken into smaller pairings. Geographic data is not indicated by the group number.
The Serial Number
Similar to the Group Number, the serial number does not have any special significance to the SSN owner’s location. The serial number ranges from 0001 to 9999 and is assigned consecutively within each group number.
As you can see, your social security number does not expressly say anything about you. Even the area number, which was tied to a location for 76 years, cannot be used to accurately pinpoint a residence. So how does an employer go from having your social security number to knowing where you’ve lived, worked, and gotten into trouble? They use a background check.
Social Security Numbers and Background Screening
Since social security numbers are used to track many types of personal transactions, a background check searches a variety of sources (mailing houses, public records, credit bureaus) to pull up information on an individual. Accurate Background’s Social Security Trace and Address History search goes back seven years and identifies information including current addresses, all addresses where an applicant has lived, name summaries and variations, date of birth, etc. This information can then be used to search for criminal records in counties where an individual has lived, as well as identity potential discrepancies or whether owner of the SSN is listed as deceased. Social Security Numbers can also play an important role in verifying the results of a background check – for example when a criminal record is returned that actually belongs to someone with a similar name. In a nutshell – your social security number confirms you are who you say you are and that nobody else’s information accidentally gets mixed into your report.
So while those nine digits don’t actually mean a lot at face value, they have the potential to reveal a detailed personal history when used by someone who knows how to use it.