Here’s a fun party trick. You tell me your birth date and the state you were born in and guess what? I’ll guess your social security number and I may just be right or eerily close.
O.K., maybe I can’t do that, but researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have figured out a way to “reverse engineer” social security numbers.
We’ve all been entrenched with the message: Protect your social security number.
-Don’t have it put on your checks.
-Don’t carry your card in your wallet unless you know you need it today.
-Lock your social security number and other important personal information away at a home.
-Don’t give your social security number over the phone or the internet.
-Shred old or unnecessary papers with your social or other important information.
Education and diligence is often the best protection but then we learn that there where there is a will, there is a way. If someone really wanted to find out or even “guess” your social security number despite your best efforts, could it be done?
How can social security numbers be “guessed” or “reverse engineered?”
First we have to understand that social security numbers are not randomly generated. They are not random because each part of our social security number actually has a meaning or an order.
Understanding How Social Security Numbers are Assigned:
The first three digits of your social security number are tied to your state of birth. The next two numbers are a “group number” that is sequentially issued during a time period. For example, if you and I were born in the same state and applied for a social security number during the same time, it is likely that we will share the first five numbers of our social security number. This makes the first five digits in a social security number very “guessable’ by someone who does a little research and comparison.
The last four digits of your social security number are supposedly random. However, by using database known as the Death Master File, which shows social security numbers that were assigned to the now deceased, patterns are seen in those digits as well.
So theoretically, and as the Carnegie Mellon University research shows, it is really more than a theory, if someone wanted to learn your social security number, the best place to start is the Death Master File with a list of dead people born around the time and place of your birth.
Facts about Guessing Social Security Numbers:
-The older you are, the more difficult it is to hone in on your social security number.
-Also, it is harder to guesstimate social security numbers for people born in more heavily populated states.
-Researchers were able to figure out the first five numbers of social security numbers with 90% accuracy.
-Accuracy fell to 5% for guessing the last four digits.
This is an astounding rate of success considering that the odds of just randomly guessing a SSN should be 1 in a billion.
What’s really scary…
Credit card verification services have allowed for up to two digits in the social to be wrong as a courtesy in case customers were just confused or forgetful.
There have been many examples of stolen identity that ended up on a credit report with a “close” but not completely accurate social security number.
Botnets could conceivably guess dozens of socials a minute and apply en masse for credit cards.
The Social Security Administration began issuing the numbers in the 1930s as a tracking system for personal taxes. The Social Security Administration argues that the numbers were never intended for general identification and that the institution has long warned the public against using the social security numbers in this way.
According to a government spokesperson, “there is no foolproof method for predicting a person’s Social Security number.” He also added that the agency is developing a system to randomly assign Social Security numbers.
How do you feel about the consequences of the information learned from this new research?