What Is a Social Security Number (SSN)?

The term Social Security number (SSN) refers to a numerical identifier assigned to U.S. citizens and other residents to track income and determine benefits. The SSN was created in 1935 as part of The New Deal to provide for retirement and disability benefits. Although the original intention was to track earnings and provide benefits, it is now used for additional purposes, such as identifying individuals for tax purposes and tracking credit reports.

Individuals in the U.S. are asked to provide their SSN to obtain credit, open bank accounts, obtain government benefits, and make major purchases, among many other pursuits.

Key Takeaways

  • A Social Security number is a numerical identifier assigned to U.S. citizens and other residents to track income and determine benefits.
  • The SSN was created in 1935 as part of The New Deal.
  • SSNs are issued by the Social Security Administration.
  • To get a Social Security number, you must file Form SS-5 with the Social Security Administration.
  • They are susceptible to use for identity theft and fraud.

How Social Security Numbers Work

With very few exceptions, all U.S. legal residents (citizens, permanent residents, and temporary or working residents) have a Social Security number. Even non-working residents (citizens and non-citizens alike) can obtain an SSN because of how useful it is to businesses and government entities.

The legal framework for assigning a Social Security number is provided under Section 205(c)(2) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S. Code, Chapter 7, Subsection 405). Social Security numbers and cards are issued by the Social Security Administration (SSA).

Social Security numbers are now random streams of digits but weren't prior to 2011. At that time, the first three digits represented the area in which the individual was born or was from. The next pair of numbers was originally slated to represent a year or month of birth.

Because there was concern about this being falsified, the Social Security Administration instead voted to have it represent a group number. Thus far, no Social Security Numbers have been reused, though there have been some cases in which two people were issued the same number.

Scammers are everywhere, so it's important that you keep your information safe and secure. You can avoid scams and report them directly to authorities through the Federal Trade Commission's website.

Special Considerations

As noted above, the Social Security number was established as part of a program developed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to help the United States following the Great Depression. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act that same year to help provide Americans with economic stability, especially to people over the age of 65. This included financial benefits were based on the amount of income they received before they entered retirement.

The Social Security Board was established in order to maintain the Social Security Act and to keep on top of recordkeeping. This led to the creation of a unique nine-digit number assigned to each individual. As mentioned earlier, the number was divided into three groups:

  • The first group of numbers represented the issuing state, such as 001 to 003 for New Hampshire and 575 to 576 for Hawaii
  • The second group of numbers was determined by issuing offices
  • The third group of numbers highlighted the order within the group

Changes took place within issuing offices in 2011 when SSNs were issued randomly.

The usage of SSNs has changed over its lifetime as well. For instance, federal government agencies were required to use them in order to identify individuals as of 1943. Other key moments in the SSN's timeline include:

  • The use of SSNs for tax reporting purposes by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in 1962
  • The requirement of banks to obtain SSNs from all their customers as of 1970
  • The need to provide financial institutions with your SSN for an interest-bearing account in 1983
  • The printing of SSNs on driver's licenses as well as birth and death records in 1996; SSNs were removed from driver's licenses and birth records in 1999
  • The removal of laws requiring SSNs as a way to identify individuals in 2008

How to Get a Social Security Number

A Social Security number and the corresponding card may be obtained by filling out Form SS-5: Application for a Social Security Card from the SSA. The form covers obtaining an original card, replacing a card, and changing or correcting SSN records.

A full list of requirements, such as documentation that proves age, identity, and U.S. citizenship or immigration status are listed in the form. There is no cost for obtaining a card or number. In some circumstances, an individual may change their Social Security number.

420 million

The number of Social Security numbers available for assignment.

Social Security Numbers and Identity Theft

Social Security numbers are frequently used as a personal identifier and to obtain credit. They contain no biometrics and rely on documentation to prove validity. They are susceptible to use for identity theft and fraud.

A notable example is when the chief executive officer (CEO) of identity theft prevention service LifeLock used his SSN in advertisements as a testament to his company's effectiveness. His identity was later stolen multiple times.

There has been some movement among legislators to separate some activities from SSN use, such as renting an apartment or obtaining a hunting or fishing license.

How Can I Find Out if Someone Is Using My Social Security Number?

There's no easy way to check and see whether your Social Security number has been compromised. Many people don't find out until it's too late. But there are a few ways you can keep up-to-date with any unusual activity, including monitoring your credit reports and bank accounts, verifying your income with the Social Security Administration, and requesting tax transcripts with the IRS.

What Can Someone Do With Your Social Security Number?

Your SSN is one of the most important pieces of personal information—if not the most important—which is why it's so important that you keep it confidential. Someone who has your SSN can use it to impersonate you, obtain credit and open bank accounts, apply for jobs, steal your tax refunds, get medical treatment, and steal your government benefits.

What Should You Do if Your Social Security Number Is Stolen?

Identity thieves are everywhere. Contact the Social Security Administration if you suspect that your number is stolen. The agency can help fix any problems related to income. But if you have problems with your credit, you must contact your financial institution and the credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion). You can also file complaints with IdentityTheft.gov, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Internet Crime Center to report any suspicious activity.

How Do You Get a New Social Security Number?

In order to get an SSN, you must fill out form Form SS-5 and provide the SSA with two documents that prove your age and identity, and citizenship or immigration status.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Social Security Number?

The SSA mails individuals Social Security Numbers and cards as soon as it receives all the necessary information and documentation. This can take as long as two to four weeks, especially when the administration is facing delays.