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Social Security numbers: Most people in the U.S. have them, considering you need them for so many things. Kids need them so their parents can claim them as dependents for tax reasons, you need one to apply for a job, and they’re necessary for collecting many government benefits. If you’ve applied for a credit card or loan, you’ve entered it on your application. Because it’s tied to some of the most important, sensitive data about you, a Social Security number itself is incredibly delicate information, which is why you need to be cautious about whom you give it to.

But what’s so special about a sequence of nine numbers, and how secure can that numbering system be? Should a Social Security number be longer to prevent identity theft? There are lots of questions that surround this string of numbers that is so deeply embedded in Americans’ lives, and to answer them, it helps to know the basics.

Why Nine?

The Social Security numbering scheme was created in 1936 as a way to organize Social Security applications.

“It was really just a bookkeeping device for our own internal use and was never intended to be anything more than that,” says the history section of the Social Security Administration website.

The number is broken into three segments as a part of that filing system: The first three are the area number, the next two are the group number and the last four make up a serial number. It’s almost funny that such an important number started out as something as boring as a way to file paperwork.

Breaking Down the Numbers

Cards used to be issued from offices across the country, and the area number corresponded to the state where the card was issued. The card wasn’t necessarily issued from the applicant’s state of birth or residence, and the same is true now. Since 1972, all cards have been issued from the Social Security Administration office in Baltimore, and the area number is tied to the ZIP code of the mailing address on the application.

So there are your first three. On the group number: Each area has its own set of group numbers, from 01 to 99. There’s a system to the way these are assigned, but they’re not given out consecutively. The serial numbers — the last four digits — run consecutively within each group from 0001 through 9999.

And to finish on a fun fact: More than 453 million Social Security numbers have been issued, and about 5.5 million new numbers are issued each year, according to the administration’s website.

Because the number is unique, it’s kind of like a key to your life. That’s why you should never give it out unless it is absolutely necessary, and you keep your card in a safe place. Don’t leave forms with your number on them lying around, and shred anything containing it that you no longer need.

If you are afraid your Social Security number has been compromised, you should monitor your credit. You can do this for free using the Credit Report Card, which updates two of your credit scores every month for free. Any major, unexpected shift in your credit scores could signal identity theft, and you should pull your free annual credit reports.

More on Identity Theft:

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  • James Moninger

    It amazes me that the credit industry has gotten away with demanding a social security number be provided as part of the credit application process. This has probably spawned a good portion of identity theft cases. Social security numbers were designed as a mechanism to collect wage and pension information for employees, and to facilitate tax reporting. They have no place in the private sector, but few seem to care.

  • Vadim Manzhos

    You’d better read comments below first and do your research. Are you being “politically correct” or you truly believe in what you wrote?

  • ChipsPOV

    “Because the number is unique, it’s kind of like a key to your life. That’s why you should never give it out unless it is absolutely necessary, and you keep your card in a safe place. Don’t leave forms with your number on them lying around, and shred anything containing it that you no longer need.”

    I agree but trying to keep your Social Security number safe is a joke. You have to give out your SS# to get or do anything in this world. My identity has been stolen 3 times and allegedly the biggest security breach is with the Social Security Administration. The credit bureau’s are constantly hacked. The Patriot Act has made maintaining privacy impossible.

    Every year, billions of dollars are stolen by crooks who use your SS# and access to your accounts to illegally buy stuff. And, who pays for this? The victims!!!!

    Good luck trying to keep your SS# safe. What a cruel joke on innocent consumers.

  • Terry Herres

    Social Security numbers are designed so the people who own you know how much you have paid back for the debt you were sold for.

    • Vadim Manzhos

      You are right. They are not people but evil spirits who control the controllers.

  • Dave

    SSN wasn’t created for those reasons printing this kind of BS is disgusting to Americans and any service men and women who have fought for the true Republic form of a Country! 1928 in Havana Cuba there were 168 nations at the Panamerican Conference “Google it” it was proven the US Government was a corporation and NOT a true government! The US government doesn’t own or have the manadate to the land of America! They don’t own the land so what collateral do they have for their loans to the bankers in Europe? So in 1933 the US corporation went bankrupt again and all the European bankers pulled all their money out of the American Banks! It took them five years to figure out what are they going to do? So in 1933 the US corporation handed out birth certificates and ssn cards plus took all your gold and silver ” real money”. Birth Certificate means TITLE or Ownership or if they couldn’t own the land then their going to own the people! There is your collateral wake up and stop printing the BS story when you have no proof or factor your title of the article!

    • frosticus

      it would be interesting to see your sources for this information.

      • http://www.credit.com/ Credit.com Credit Experts

        The source is the Social Security Administration.

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