You know that Social Security Numbers (SSNs) are issued to every U.S. citizen, that they’re a crucial form of I.D., and that every individual has a unique number.
But what else do you know about the nine-digit chain of numbers that identifies you on your tax returns?
The truth is your SSN isn’t as random as it seems. And depending on when you were born, the first five digits reveal quite a lot about you.
Keep reading to learn more about why Social Security Numbers exist and what those nine little digits reveal about you.
The history of Social Security Numbers
The Social Security Act, passed in 1935, was one of the most crucial and long-lasting aspects of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
As a whole, the New Deal was meant to relieve some of the financial strain Americans were suffering during the Great Depression. The Social Security Act contributed to this goal by creating a social safety net for the elderly and unemployed.
The Social Security Act promised that the federal government would dispense a certain amount of money to each state. The states would then use these funds to support their retired and elderly populations.
The Act then established an old-age retirement fund that would issue benefits to retirees after they left the workforce. The amount of money workers received from Social Security in retirement was based on their income during their working years.
But for the federal government to know how much each individual should receive in benefits, it needed a method of tracking each employee’s income. Eventually, that method became the Social Security Number.
At first, SSNs were only issued to workers in some industries. Adults would apply to get numbers for themselves and their minor children. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that Social Security Numbers started to be issued at birth.
If you were born before 1935, chances are that you applied for your own number and received it directly.
When deciding how to create and assign SSNs, the federal government eventually landed on using a nine-digit number with a group each of three, two, and four numbers. Each group of numbers signified something different:
- The area number, or the first three numbers
- The group number, or the middle two numbers
- The serial number, or the last four numbers
Area number: The first three digits
Before the Social Security Administration (SSA) became a national, centralized bureau, you needed to apply for an SSN which would be issued from local offices.
Each state had at least one area number, though states with more employees could have more than one. States in the northeast had the lowest area numbers, and states in the southwest had the highest.
However, if you were born before 1972, your area number doesn’t necessarily indicate your state of birth. Since individuals could apply for Social Security cards at any Social Security office, the issuing office would use its region’s area number when creating the new number.
After 1972, SSNs were issued from the Social Security Administration’s central Baltimore location. As a result, area numbers for cards issued between 1972 and 2011 corresponded to the ZIP code from which the SSN application was mailed.
As of 2011, the Social Security Administration no longer uses area numbers to assign SSNs. Instead, the first three digits of each new Social Security card are completely randomized.
Group number: The middle two digits
For each batch of Social Security Numbers assigned to any given area, the SSA cycles semi-sequentially through the numbers 01 and 99.
The odd numbers 01 and 09 are assigned first, then even numbers between 10 and 98, then even numbers between 02 and 08, and finally odd numbers from 11 to 99.
In a way, your group number indicates your age, but only in relation to other people whose SSNs were assigned in the same area and batch as yours.
For instance, if your group number is 96, you’re older than anyone with an odd group number higher than 11. Or if your group number is 07, you’re older than most people whose numbers were assigned in your same batch.
The serial number: The final four digits
Like group numbers, serial numbers are assigned in ascending order as part of each batch of numbers issued by area. Unlike group numbers, though, serial numbers are assigned in order from 0001 to 9999.
While your SSN might have a zero somewhere in it, none of the three sections will be entirely made up of zeros.
For instance, 00 is never assigned as a group number, 0000 is never assigned as a serial number, and 000 is never assigned as either a pre-2011 area code or a post-2011 randomized sequence.
What Social Security Numbers are used for today
Today, SSNs are used for much more than identifying you to the federal government so you can receive the right amount of post-retirement benefits.
Social Security Numbers are also — even primarily — used to verify your identity. Along with your driver’s license, address, and other identifying information, your SSN can prove that you are who you say you are.
Additionally, SSNs are usually linked to your credit score. Banks request your number when you apply to open a bank account, as will mortgage lenders if you’re trying to purchase a home.
A lender, financial institution, or potential employer will all use your SSN to verify your identity, track your work history, see every address you’ve lived at, and more.
Why you should protect your Social Security Number
With all the personal information linked to your unique SSN, it’s easy to see why you need to keep your number secure. You should never divulge your SSN online unless you know you’re on a safe, encrypted website. ’
You should also know why a person or institution is asking for your SSN. Never offer your number unless you trust the institution is asking for it for a valid reason (for instance, if you’re e-filing taxes on the IRS’s website).
Similarly, if someone requests your SSN over the phone, don’t recite your full number unless you’re positive you’re not being scammed.
For instance, if you call your health insurance’s customer service line, the representative might ask for the last four digits of your Social Security Number. That’s a fair way for an insurance company to make sure they’re talking to the real you.
Finally, If you’re ever the victim of identity theft, you might need to apply for a new SSN. The Social Security Administration also issues new Social Security Numbers to individuals who are being abused and need to escape a life-threatening situation.
To get a new number, you’ll have to meet with a Social Security representative in person and likely provide other forms of I.D.
While no one can look at your Social Security card and instantly guess your age, date of birth, and state of residence, the numbers themselves do contain some interesting information.
Most importantly, though, your Social Security Number is unique to you. Store your card in a safe place, memorize the number, and only give it out when you’re sure you need to.