How Safe Is Your Social Security Number?

July 29, 2009
Michael Sheehan

For years, consumers have been told that the best way to foil identity thieves is to treat their Social Security numbers as if they were gold bars. It turns out that that advice is being undermined by government agencies and consumers who put personal information on social networking sites.

For years, consumers have been told that the best way to foil identity thieves is to treat their Social Security numbers as if they were gold bars. Shred any documents that may have your SSN on them, law enforcement types advised, and don’t even think about carrying your Social Security card in your wallet or purse. It turns out that that advice is being undermined by some government agencies and by consumers who put personal information on social networking sites like Facebook.

As careful as you might be in guarding your SSN number, crooks may still be able to get at it through public records with full or partial SSNs that are published online by your county government. A recent survey the Government Accountability Office showed that 85 percent of the largest counties in the nation make records like property transactions, divorce agreements, and tax liens available online. Only about 12 perceent of those counties have finished editing those documents by removing all or part of the SSNs and another 26 percent are in the process, which is labor intensive and time consuming.

People who list their birth date and where they were born on sites like Facebook are also vulnerable. Using those two pieces of information, researchers were able to guess the first five digits of the SSNs of more than a third of the people in their sample. The Social Security Administration uses the birthplace to assign the first three numbers in the SSN, and the date of birth to determine the second two digits. That will change; the SSA says that by next year it will begin randomly assigning SSNs.

Lesson: Don’t list your date of birth or where you were born on any social networking site.