Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson

We’ve repeatedly told consumers to protect their Social Security numbers. Those nine-digit combinations, unique for each of us, are a goldmine for identity thieves who would like to hack your bank account or open credit in your name.

Often, we’re told that it’s impossible to keep that number secret. If you carry a military ID or Medicare card, your number is on display. Reports indicate the U.S. Defense Department plans to remove SSNs from military and dependent cards by the end of 2009, fortunately. But there’s no indication when Medicare will change its ways. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse suggests carrying a copy of your Medicare card, instead of the original, and using a black marker to cross out the last 4 digits of your SSN.

But even if you’re able to keep your number safely locked up, there’s a chance someone can get it anyway – just by guessing.

Carnegie Mellon researchers recently announced  that they’ve developed an algorithm that can predict, with alarming accuracy, a person’s Social Security number. A professor and his student used publicly available information, such names, birth dates and places of birth, found on social networking sites, data brokers and other online tools.

Where one is born determines the first three digits of their SSN and when they’re born determines the second two digits. To develop the algorithm, the authors used information from the SSA’s Death Master file, a record of the names and SSNs of deceased individuals.

SmartMoney reports that The Social Security Administration says the method by which it assigns numbers has been a matter of public record for years. The article quotes SSA spokesman Mark Lassiter, "The public should not be alarmed by this report because there is no foolproof method for predicting a person's Social Security Number.

Lassiter said the SSA has been developing a system to randomly assign Social Security numbers, expected to be in place next year. Statisticians say that the nine-digit SSN allows for approximately 1 billion possible combinations.

Talk About It: How do you protect your Social Security number? Are you worried about someone guessing it?

 

 

 

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