Your Social Security Number: Everything You Need to Know
Many of us got our Social Security number about the time we got our first job. It was a symbol of our right to work and our responsibility to pay taxes.7 min read
Updated October 27, 2020:
SSA Publication No. 05-10002
Many of us got our Social Security number about the time we got our first job. It was a symbol of our right to work and our responsibility to pay taxes. And, like getting a driver's license, it was symbolic of becoming an adult. Today, most children have their Social Security numbers by age 1. And many parents apply for a number for their newborns even before they leave the hospital!
Just as having a Social Security number is no longer a symbol of adulthood, the number's use is no longer confined to working and paying taxes. In ever-increasing numbers, government agencies, schools, and businesses rely on Social Security numbers to identify people in their computer systems. Everyone seems to want your Social Security number.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) is aware of concerns about the increasing uses of the Social Security number for client identification and recordkeeping purposes. However, several other government agencies are permitted by law to use Social Security numbers, and the law generally does not prohibit any use of the numbers by the private sector. Banks and other - financial institutions use the numbers to report interest earned on accounts to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Other government agencies use Social Security numbers in computer matching operations to stop fraud and abuse. For example, using Social Security numbers, some state death records are matched to Medicare records to uncover Medicare and Social Security fraud.
Privacy Of Records
Although we can't prevent others from asking for your number, you should know that giving it to them does not give them access to your Social Security records. The privacy of your records is guaranteed unless 1) disclosure to another government agency is required by law or 2) the information is needed to conduct Social Security or other government health or welfare programs.
If a business or other enterprise asks you for your Social Security number, you can refuse to give it to them. However, that may mean doing without the purchase or service for which your number was requested.
Our primary message is this: be careful with your Social Security number and protect its privacy whenever possible.
The Original Purpose Of The Social Security Number
When SSA began keeping records in 1935, it needed a system to keep track of the earnings, and eventually the benefits, of people who worked in jobs covered under the new program. Because many people use more than one name over a lifetime or share the same name, a numerical identifier was selected.
What The Numbers Mean
The nine-digit Social Security number is divided into three parts. The first three numbers generally indicate the state of residence at the time a person applies for his or her first card. Originally, the lowest numbers were assigned to the New England states, and the numbers grew progressively higher in the South and West. However, in recent years, this geographical relationship has been disrupted somewhat by the need to allocate numbers out of sequence to certain growing and populous states. The middle two digits of a Social Security number have no special significance, but merely serve to break the numbers into blocks of convenient size. The last four characters represent a straight numerical progression of assigned numbers.
SSA has issued about 365 million Social Security numbers, and about 10 million new numbers are assigned each year. But even at this rate, there will be no need to reissue the same numbers, revise the present system, or devise a new numbering system for several generations. For this reason, SSA plans to continue using the nine-digit number.
Types Of Social Security Cards
SSA issues three types of Social Security cards. One, the familiar card most people have, has been issued since 1935. It shows the person's name and Social Security number, and it lets the person work without restriction. SSA issues it to U. S. citizens and permanent resident aliens.
The second type of card bears the legend NOT VALID FOR EMPLOYMENT. SSA issues it to people from other countries who are admitted to the United States on a temporary basis but not for work, and who need a number for other purposes, such as banking. SSA began issuing the third type of card in 1992. It bears the legend VALID FOR WORK ONLY WITH INS AUTHORIZATION. It is issued to people who are admitted to the United States on a temporary basis with Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) employment authorization.
Protecting Your Social Security Number And Records
When you work, your Social Security number is used to record your earnings. Here are some things you can do to protect your Social Security record and to make sure it is accurate.
- Show your Social Security card to your employer when you start a job.
- Check the name and Social Security number on your pay stub and W-2 form to make sure your name and number are correct.
- Keep your card in a safe place and don't rely on your memory. If you give your employer the wrong Social Security number, your earnings may get credited to some other worker.
- Send for an earnings statement every three years to make sure your record is right. The statement is available free of charge from Social Security by calling 1-800-772-1213 or by download.
Social Security Number Misuse
Sometimes more than one person uses the same Social Security number, either on purpose or not. You should let us know if someone is using a Social Security number that belongs to someone else.
Also, the Social Security card should not be used as an identification card. Because the Social Security card doesn't have a photograph, other records are more reliable when identification is needed, such as cashing checks.
It is against the law to use someone else's Social Security number or to give false information when applying for a number. Also, it is illegal to alter, buy, or sell Social Security cards. Anyone convicted of these crimes is subject to stiff fines and/or imprisonment.
If Someone Else Uses Your Social Security Number What Social Security Can Do
If you suspect that someone else is using your number for work, you should report it to Social Security. You also can check your earnings record by calling 1-800-772-1213 and asking for a Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement. You may also download the form from us. Your statement will show the earnings reported to your Social Security number each year since 1951. If you find that too much or too little is reported for your number, notify Social Security. We will help you correct your record.
What Social Security Cannot Do
If your Social Security number has been used to run up bills or obtain credit, Social Security cannot straighten out your credit record. You must contact each creditor or credit agency yourself. We cannot fix incorrect reports made by an employer to state unemployment or welfare offices. You will need to contact the state or local agency to correct your record.
Because there is no law concerning the use of a person's Social Security number by a private individual or organization, Social Security has no control over such use.
Misleading Advertising Practices
Some private firms sell metal or plastic Social Security cards or offer them free as a come on for other business offers. Although SSA does not encourage the use of these cards, they are not illegal. However, make sure your number is correct if you decide to use these services.
Sometimes private firms offer, for a fee, to obtain a number for a newborn child or get a revised card for a bride showing her new name. Generally, these businesses are not illegal, but remember that both services are free when you contact Social Security directly. It is illegal for private firms to use words that seemingly represent Social Security or emblems that suggest a government affiliation to solicit business.
If you receive something you think is illegal, turn over the entire package, including the envelope, to your local Social Security office or send the material to the Social Security Administration, Office of Public Affairs, Misleading Advertising, Box 17740, Baltimore, MD 21235. If you wish, you also can turn over the material to local postal authorities.
Applying For A New Or Replacement Card
If you need to replace a lost Social Security card, change the name shown on your card, or request a new card, just call or visit Social Security. These services are free. You will need to complete a short form and furnish identification.
To get a replacement card, you usually need one identifying document. To change the name on your card, you need documentation that shows your old name and your new name. If you were born outside the United States, you also generally must show proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status. Your replacement card will have the same number as your old card.
For a new card, you will need to provide documents that show your age, citizenship or lawful alien status, and who you are, for example, a birth certificate and a school record. Call Social Security for more examples.
The form to obtain a replacement card is also available for download.
For More Information
For more information or to get a form to request a Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement, call Social Security toll free at 1-800-772-1213 or download the form from us.
You can speak to a representative any business day from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The best times to call are early in the morning and early in the evening. And if you can, it's best to call later in the week and later in the month. When you call, have your Social Security number handy.
The Social Security Administration treats all calls confidentially whether they're made to our toll-free numbers or to one of our local offices. We also want to ensure that you receive accurate and courteous service. That is why we have a second Social Security representative monitor some incoming and outgoing telephone calls.
Department of Health and Human Services
Social Security Administration
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