Is your identity secure: Social Security Numbers and their problems - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

Is your identity secure: Social Security Numbers and their problems

WASHINGTON, D.C.- Researchers have found that it is possible to guess many -- if not all -- of the nine digits in an individual's Social Security number using publicly available information, a finding they say compromises the security of one of the most widely used consumer identifiers in the United States.

The Social Security number's first three digits -- called the "area number" -- is issued according to the Zip code of the mailing address provided in the application form. The fourth and fifth digits -- known as the "group number" -- transition slowly, and often remain constant over several years for a given region. The last four digits are assigned sequentially.

As a result, SSNs assigned in the same state to applicants born on consecutive days are likely to contain the same first four or five digits, particularly in states with smaller populations and rates of birth.

As it happens, the researchers said, if you're trying to discover a living person's SSN, the best place to start is with a list of dead people -- particularly deceased people who were born around the time and place of your subject. The so-called "Death Master File," is a publicly available file which lists SSNs, names, dates of birth and death, and the states of all individuals who have applied for a number and whose deaths have been reported to the Social Security Administration.

Researchers theorized that they could use the Death Master File along with publicly available birth information to predict narrow ranges of values wherein individual SSNs were likely to fall. They found that on the first try they could correctly guess the first five digits of the SSN for 44 percent of deceased people who were born after 1988, and for 7 percent of those born between 1973 and 1988.

They were able to identify all nine digits for 8.5 percent of people born after 1988 in fewer than 1,000 attempts. For people born recently in smaller states, researchers sometimes needed just 10 or fewer attempts to predict all nine digits.

Lawmakers say this research is important and will help prove the importance of changing how America approaches individual security. They also say fixing the system could be expensive, but is very necessary.

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