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ScienceNOW -- Keeping your Social Security number secret may not be enough to protect you from identity theft. According to a new study, a crook need only figure out where and when you were born--information often easily found on social networking sites like Facebook--to guess your number in as few as 1000 tries. Those individuals particularly at risk were born in smaller states after 1989, when receiving a Social Security number at birth became the norm.
Social Security numbers were never meant to be used for widespread identification. They were conceived solely to track taxes and benefits. But as more banks, credit card companies, and government agencies have used them as proof of identification, Social Security numbers have become a key instrument used to fake another's identity. To help credit bureaus spot fraud, the Social Security Administration (SSA) publishes all records for deceased Social Security holders, as well as publicly describing the method for assigning numbers in various states. But researchers have now found that this very information opens the door to guessing someone's number.
Here's how Social Security numbers work: Every Social Security number starts with three digits known as an "area number." Smaller states might have only one, whereas New York, for example, has 85. The next two digits are "group numbers," which can be anything from 01-99, but don't correspond to anything specific. The last four digits, the "serial number," are assigned sequentially.
Introduced in 1936, Social Security numbers have become increasingly vital. But the nine-digit numbers are surprisingly easy to steal. Now the government is taking steps to change how they're assigned.