What is a Social Security Number and how do you “steal it”?

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Why do shows like to use the “Give me your Social Security Number” bit? If they give you the number will you be rich? Can you even access the account by just that number?

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I like to think this bit is a lot like how shows like to think hacking someone is just one attempt on their keyboard. It has no basis in reality, and in reality it is way more sinister and difficult to pull off.

An SSN is a number assigned to taxpayers by the U.S. govt. They use it to confirm your identity, keep track of your finances and confirm your entitlement to disability/retirement benefits.

If someone steals that number from you they can steal your entire identity.

The problem with SSNs as identifiers is that the security of them relies on them being secret, and they were never intended for use as an identification method

But since they are used that way, the combination of a SSN, date of birth, name and/or other information about a victim alone might be enough to apply for a loan in that person’s name. If that is granted, the thief may skip paying back the loan and leave the victim with it

The social security number is the de facto US national identification number, although it wasn’t designed for that purpose. Its often used as an authenticator, for example to set up a bank account. For that reason it can be used, along with other information or documents, to steal someone’s identity.

Its 513-88-0762. Why do you ask?

Every US citizen at birth is assigned a social security number since after they passed the Social Security Act in 1935. The purpose is so that the Federal Government can calculate how much you paid into Social Security, which is a form of Old Aged, Survivors, and Disability Insurance. Basically 6.2% of every dollar you make goes to payroll tax, gets logged in your Social Security account, and gets matched by your employer––so 12.4¢ on the dollar. If you reach 67 years old, or become totally and permanently disabled, or are a widower, or a few other circumstances, you can draw a monthly federal pension based, in part, on what you paid in over the years.

The problem is that in the US there are no national identification documents other than this social security card, which only has your name and a number on it. So that number became, as others said, a de facto national ID number. Banks, utility companies, landlords, employers, the tax agencies, states, and all kinds of other organizations might use that number to prove you are the unique American citizen you say you are.

So, if you have someone else’s name and number, you might be able to apply for all kinds of things, from cable TV to electricity to loans to apartments to universities to insurance, as them. And if you get away with it, they might get stuck with the bill. That’s the bigger threat than somebody stealing your pension. You can’t exactly withdraw from the account. Although there have been cases of the pensions being stolen, and even of children impersonating dead parents to continue receiving the checks. But those scenarios are very rare compared with the vanilla identity theft of maybe applying for a credit card and running it up.

It’s the closest Americans have to a universal ID number, so it’s used when establishing bank accounts, getting loans, starting jobs, etc to verify that we’re the correct John Smith or Mary Jones when they need to verify identity.