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In the United States, a Social Security number (SSN) is a nine-digit number issued to U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and temporary (working) residents under section 205(c)(2) of the Social Security Act, codified as . The number is issued to an individual by the Social Security Administration, an independent agency of the United States government. Its primary purpose is to track individuals for Social Security purposes.
A Social Security number may be obtained by applying on Form SS-5, "Application for A Social Security Number Card".
Before 1986, people often did not obtain a Social Security number until the age of about 14, since the numbers were used for income tracking purposes, and those under that age seldom had substantial income. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 required parents to list Social Security numbers for each dependent over the age of 5 for whom the parent wanted to claim a tax deduction. Before this act, parents claiming tax deductions were on the honor system not to lie about the number of children they supported. During the first year, this anti-fraud change resulted in seven million fewer minor dependents being claimed, nearly all of which are believed to have involved either children that never existed, or tax deductions improperly claimed by non-custodial parents. By 1990, the threshold was lowered to 1 year old, and is now required regardless of the child's age. Since then, parents have often applied for Social Security numbers for their children soon after birth; today, it can be done on the application for a birth certificate.
On November 24, 1936, 1,074 of the nation's 45,000 post offices were designated "typing centers" to type up Social Security cards that were then sent to Washington, D.C. On December 1, as part of the publicity campaign for the new program, Joseph L. Fay of the Social Security Administration selected a record from the top of the first stack of 1,000 records and announced that the first Social Security number in history was assigned to John David Sweeney, Jr., of New Rochelle, New York.
The original purpose of this number was to track individuals' accounts within the Social Security program. It has since come to be used as an identifier for individuals within the United States, although rare errors occur where duplicates do exist. As numbers are now assigned by the central issuing office of the SSA, it is unlikely that duplications will ever occur again. A few duplications did occur when prenumbered cards were sent out to regional SSA offices and (originally) Post Offices. Employee, patient, student, and credit records are sometimes indexed by Social Security number. The U.S. Armed Forces has used the Social Security number as an identification number for the Army and Air Force since July 1, 1969, the Navy and Marine Corps since January 1, 1972, and the Coast Guard since October 1, 1974. Previously, the United States military used a much more complicated system of service numbers.
Social Security was originally a universal tax, but when Medicare was passed in 1965, objecting religious groups in existence prior to 1951 were allowed to opt out of the system. Because of this, not every American is part of the Social Security program, and not everyone has a number. However, a social security number is required for parents to claim their children as dependents for federal income tax purposes, and the Internal Revenue Service requires all corporations to obtain SSNs (or alternative identifying numbers) from their employees, as described below. The Old Order Amish have fought to prevent universal Social Security by overturning rules such as a requirement to provide a Social Security number for a hunting license.
Social Security cards printed from January 1946 until January 1972 expressly stated the number and card were not to be used for identification purposes. Since nearly everyone in the United States now has a number, it became convenient to use it anyway and the message was removed. The SSN card is still not suitable for primary identification as it has no photograph, no physical description and no birth date. All it does is confirm that a particular number has been issued to a particular name.
Since then, Social Security numbers have become de facto national identification numbers. Although some people do not have an SSN assigned to them, it is becoming increasingly difficult to engage in legitimate financial activities such as applying for a loan or a bank account without one. While the government cannot require an individual to disclose his SSN without a legal basis, companies may refuse to provide service to an individual who does not provide a SSN.
Internal Revenue Code section 6109(d) provides: “The social security account number issued to an individual for purposes of section 205(c)(2)(A) of the Social Security Act [codified as 42 U.S.C. § 405(c)(2)(A)] shall, except as shall otherwise be specified under regulations of the Secretary [of the Treasury or his delegate], be used as the identifying number for such individual for purposes of this title [the Internal Revenue Code, title 26 of the United States Code].”
The Internal Revenue Code also provides, when required by regulations prescribed by the Secretary [of the Treasury or his delegate]:
According to U.S. Treasury regulations, any person who, after October 31, 1962, works as an employee for wages subject to Social Security taxes, Medicare taxes, or U.S. federal income tax withholdings is required to apply for "an account number" using "Form SS-5."
A taxpayer who is not eligible to have a Social Security number must obtain an alternative Taxpayer Identification Number.
Three different types of Social Security cards are issued. The most common type contains the cardholder's name and number. Such cards are issued to U.S. citizens and U.S. permanent residents. There are also two restricted types of Social Security cards:
In 2004 Congress passed The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act; parts of which mandated that the Social Security Administration redesign the Social Security Number (SSN) Card to prevent forgery. From April 2006 through August, 2007, Social Security Administration (SSA) and Government Printing Office (GPO) employees were assigned to redesign the Social Security Number Card to the specifications of the Interagency Task Force created by the Commissioner of Social Security in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security.
The new SSN card design utilizes both covert and overt security features created by the SSA and GPO design teams.
Many citizens and privacy advocates are concerned about the disclosure and processing of Social Security numbers. Furthermore, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have demonstrated an algorithm which uses publicly available personal information to reconstruct a given SSN.
The SSN is frequently used by those involved in identity theft, since it is interconnected with so many other forms of identification, and because people asking for it treat it as an authenticator. The SSN is generally required by financial institutions to set up bank accounts, credit cards, and obtain loans, partly because it is assumed that no one except the person to whom it was issued will know it.
Exacerbating the problem of using the social security number as an identifier is the fact that the social security card contains no biometric identifiers of any sort, making it essentially impossible to tell whether a person using a certain SSN is truly the person to whom it was issued without relying on some other means of documentation (which may itself have been falsely procured through use of the fraudulent SSN). Congress has proposed federal laws that will restrict the use of SSNs for identification and ban their use for a number of commercial purposes, e.g. rental applications.
The IRS offers alternatives to SSNs in some places where providing untrusted parties with identification numbers is essential. Tax preparers can acquire a Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN) to include on their client's tax returns (as part of signature requirements). Day care services have tax benefits, and even a sole proprietor should give parents an EIN (employer identification number) to use on their tax return.
The Social Security Administration has suggested that, if asked to provide his or her Social Security number, a citizen should ask which law requires its use.
Identity confusion has also occurred due to the use of local Social Security Numbers by the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau, whose numbers overlap with those of residents of New Hampshire and Maine.
In accordance with §7213 of the 9/11 Commission Implementation Act of 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, there is a limit to the number of replacement Social Security cards one may receive: up to three replacement cards per calendar year and ten in a lifetime.
The Social Security number is a nine-digit number in the format "AAA-GG-SSSS". The number is divided into three parts.
The Area Number, the first three digits, is assigned by the geographical region. Prior to 1973, cards were issued in local Social Security offices around the country and the Area Number represented the office code in which the card was issued. This did not necessarily have to be in the area where the applicant lived, since a person could apply for their card in any Social Security office. Since 1973, when SSA began assigning SSNs and issuing cards centrally from Baltimore, the area number assigned has been based on the ZIP code in the mailing address provided on the application for the original Social Security card. The applicant's mailing address does not have to be the same as their place of residence. Thus, the Area Number does not necessarily represent the State of residence of the applicant regardless of whether the card was issued prior to, or after, 1973.
Generally, numbers were assigned beginning in the northeast and moving south and westward, so that people on the East Coast had the lowest numbers and those on the West Coast had the highest numbers. As the areas assigned to a locality are exhausted, new areas from the pool are assigned, so some states have noncontiguous groups of numbers.
The middle two digits are the Group Number. The Group Numbers range from 01 to 99. However, they are not assigned in consecutive order. For administrative reasons, group numbers are issued in the following order:
As an example, Group Number 98 will be issued before 11.
The last four digits are Serial Numbers. They represent a straight numerical sequence of digits from 0001-9999 within the group.
On June 25, 2011, the SSA changed the SSN assignment process to "SSN randomization". SSN randomization will affect the SSN assignment process in the following ways:
The Social Security Administration does not reuse social security numbers. It has issued over 450 million since the start of the program, and at a use rate of about 5.5 million per year it says it has enough to last several generations without reuse or changing the number of digits.
Prior to June 25, 2011, a valid SSN could not have an area number between 734 and 749, or above 772, the highest area number which the Social Security Administration has allocated. Effective June 25, 2011, the SSA assigns SSNs randomly and allows for the assignment of area numbers between 734 and 749 and above 772 through the 800s. This should not be confused with Tax Identification Numbers which include additional area numbers.
There are also special numbers which will never be allocated:
The SSA publishes the last group number used for each area number. Since group numbers are allocated in a regular (if unusual) pattern, it is possible to identify an unissued SSN that contains an invalid group number. Despite these measures, many fraudulent SSNs cannot easily be detected using only publicly available information. In order to do so there are many online services that provide SSN validation.
Unlike many similar numbers, no check digit is included.
SSNs used in advertising have rendered those numbers invalid. One famous instance of this occurred in 1938 when the E. H. Ferree Company in Lockport, New York, decided to promote its product by showing how a Social Security card would fit into its wallets. A sample card, used for display purposes, was placed in each wallet, which was sold by Woolworth and other department stores across the country. The wallet manufacturer's vice president and treasurer Douglas Patterson thought it would be clever to use the actual SSN of his secretary, Hilda Schrader Whitcher.
Even though the card was printed in red (the real card is printed in blue) and had "Specimen" printed across the front, many people used the SSN. The Social Security Administration's account of the incident also claims that the fake card was half the size of a real card, despite a miniature card's being useless for its purpose and despite Whitcher's holding two cards of apparently identical size in the accompanying photograph. Over time, the number that appeared (078-05-1120) has been claimed by a total of over 40,000 people as their own. The SSA initiated an advertising campaign stating that it was incorrect to use the number. (Hilda Whitcher was issued a new SSN.) However, the number was found to be in use by 12 individuals as late as 1977.