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Is the end of Social Security numbers at hand?

The search for more secure alternatives, including biometrics

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By Priya Anand

We’ve all been warned not to use the same password for email, Facebook, and Amazon. But that is exactly what every American does when it comes to our financial lives. We rely on the same nine-digit password for everything from loans to taxes: Social Security numbers.

Having just one number is convenient, of course — especially to fraudsters. Right now attorneys general in Connecticut and Illinois are investigating a data breach at Experian /quotes/zigman/430218/delayed/quotes/nls/expgy EXPGY +0.11%  , one of the three major credit bureaus, that exposed the identification digits of more than 200 million Americans. To combat such crimes, experts say government agencies have begun to consider alternatives, including biometric scans.

When Social Security numbers were first issued nearly 80 years ago, they weren’t intended to be used as identification with tax men, employers and health-care providers. Yet now, 80% of the top 25 banks and 96% of the top credit card issuers allow people to access to an account if they have the correct Social Security number, according to a 2014 study by Javelin Strategy & Research.

The numbers were exposed in nearly 50% of data breaches in 2013, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center. They can be hacked or tracked through keystrokes, and found on tax forms in snail mail or old records in dumpsters. It’s even possible to guess a Social Security number based on information from Facebook profiles, like hometowns and birth dates, Carnegie Mellon University researchers found in 2009.

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“Any number of people might know your Social Security number,” says Steve Toporoff, identity protection program coordinator at the Federal Trade Commission.

It is hard to measure how many people fall victim to identity fraud due to a stolen Social Security number, experts say, because it is often difficult to trace the crime back to a specific cause. But the effects of Social Security number misuse are clearer.

The U.S. loses billions of dollars every year to thieves who file for someone else’s tax refund after getting their hands on Social Security numbers. In 2011, the Internal Revenue Service issued about $3.6 billion in potentially fraudulent tax refunds , according to a September report by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. For more than 174,000 Social Security numbers, more than one refund was filed — an indicator that some weren’t legitimate.

Those nine digits come cheap on the black market. Some estimates peg the cost at just $3, according to the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive.

The U.S. adopted Social Security numbers as an across-the-board federal government identifier after President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order in 1943, less than a decade after they first began being issued for the agency’s benefits programs. In 2011, the agency began using a more randomized process for assigning the numbers. 

There are no official plans to abandon Social Security numbers any time soon, but the government is now considering ways to reduce the number of times agencies ask people for their numbers, Toporoff says, as the digits increasingly fall in the hands of thieves.

President Barack Obama announced a program called the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace in 2011 — an initiative to partner with the private sector to create an online user authentication framework. The plan is to create an Internet ID system, which people could use to interact with multiple government agencies instead of shuffling paperwork that includes private data (like a Social Security number) through the mail.

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“Consumers will be required to give out their information in fewer instances and they won’t have to remember a zillion passwords,” Toporoff says.

Some countries have turned to biometric identification in hopes of thwarting fraud. Proponents say fingerprint and iris recognition scans make it more difficult for con men.

India launched an effort in 2010 to issue biometric identification to each of its 1.2 billion people. The program aims to combat welfare fraud in the second-most populous country, where corruption is the norm and benefits like food rations are often eaten up by middlemen. It is among at least 160 biometric ID programs in developing countries worldwide, according to a 2013 paper by the Center for Global Development.

“The use of fingerprints is growing and its one of the strongest technologies,” says Anil Jain, a professor of computer science and engineering at Michigan State University and leading expert in biometrics.

Biometrics are already widely used for criminal and defense purposes, and even the iPhone 5S includes a fingerprint touch ID option instead of a passcode.

Another place in the U.S. where fingerprints are used to cut back on fraud: Disney theme parks. In an attempt to prevent visitors from sharing tickets, guests scan their fingers on a reader, and prints are converted into a numerical ID that is tracked each time someone enters a park.

Companies are also developing new ways of verifying identities. Toronto-based Bionym Inc. offers a $79 bracelet called Nymi, which measures the wearer’s heartbeat to authenticate their identity and can open home and car doors as they approach.

Privacy advocates like Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, say biometric identification might be a new approach to solving the problem, but not necessarily better, and some drawbacks have yet to be discovered since the system isn’t yet commonplace.

“If a key unlocks lots of doors, the risks associated with it are really different from if a key unlocks one door,” Tien says.

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Scott KnipfingAlex NCSU


Peter Cumm

Why is it that the government needs to protect us from everything? Protecting yourself from identity theft can easily be achieved if you do things responsibly when online and in the retail public. There are already safeguards in place with credit card companies if your credit /debit card is lost or stolen. The more government intervenes in every facet of our lives it seems the worse and harder it gets.

David Grayadder

Solution #1 - dial back on the automation at the IRS.  No more auto-deposit of tax refunds - printed checks only, made out to the taxpayer(s).

Solution #2 - federal agencies that do not need SSNs should not use them.  At all.  This includes DoD, which (for example) should go back to issuing their own service numbers to all members.

Solution #3 - prohibit banks or any other financial/commercial enterprise from using SSNs for anything other than their stated purpose - to relay Form 1099x information to the IRS.  This would include some bozo walking up to the teller at your bank using your SSN to put his filthy paws in your bank account.  Here is where biometric info is most useful.


@David Grayadder  1) NO.  We don't need to PRINT checks, that is antiquated solves nothing.  WE have debit cards we can use for this purpose (which are not required to register an SSN).  going back to the 70's is a stupid idea.

2) Federal Agencies are the ones that USE your SSN the most, so not sure what you are talking about here.  Maybe we can use a different "personal" identifier but people will forget those other numbers and the point is to use a number you know best.. the one tied to your retirement and income.. makes perfect sense.  PRIVATE agencies should not use this number however.

3) Banks are prohibited from using SSN for other than their stated purpose.. not sure where you missed that point.  Some bozo that walks into a bank would get your SSN exactly how..? eh.. YOU must have let it slip, I know MY SSN is not accessible to ANYONE, which is yet another reason to keep this communication electronic it's sent to MY email.  Yea email can be hacked, again only if you are STUPID enough to share your email with someone or let them know your password of you don't change your password.

ALL of these things you mentioned can EASILY be prevented, my bank account, emails have NEVER been compromised because I follow SIMPLE security procedures.  These things you mentioned are only plausible if you are careless with your SSN.


sophia pushy

@ATL VM @David Grayadder

I had mine stolen about 15 years ago, and the officer who helped me because I caught it fast told me it could have been copied from medical records and a disgruntled employee. I have always been careful with it, and even recently when I purchased my last car, I paid cash and they still needed my SS# for the paperwork. I kept asking why, and they told me for the gov.t.  It ticks me off how everything from getting a cell phone to a car purchase it is needed. So no matter how "careful" one is, it's still floating out there freely.

Rick Chevalier

@ATL VM If only it were as simple as you make it sound.  Whenever I call my bank they want my social, or at least the last four digits.  Why? For identification.  I doubt that is a 'stated purpose'.  Not only that, but my utility providers use it to identify me when I call.  I can't even get water service without providing my SSN.  Upon asking why it was needed and what they used it for the reply was that is was an entry field on their computer screen.  No one could tell me what they used it for.  As someone who has had my SSN fraudulently used that is pretty scary.

Some states did use your SSN as your drivers license number although they may have stopped the practice by now.  I think this is how my SSN was stolen.  It wasn't until 17 years later that I learned of it.  I was lucky, they only used it to get out of a DUI.  But now that is on my record and I have never had a drink in my life.

k parker

@ATL VM @David Grayadder ATL, you say your soc sec # is not accesible to ANYONE.   You must not have a bank acct, brokerage acct, credit card,etc,etc..  Me thinks you are blinded...and overly confident. 

David Ausbourne

Eventually they will give everyone the same number.


Stealing will be an afterthought by then, because your fate will already be sealed.

This comment has been deleted


@Michael P  ok stop using "aliens" as a way to presume that they are the ones committing crime.  Bernie Madoff is he an alien?  NO. Kenneth Ley?  NO.. there are many names I can mention BEFORE I come to ANY "illegal" don't use a stereotype to make assumptions they are committing crimes because THEY are not.

If you think about it for 10 seconds and use your brain for something other than a gap filler in your cranium, a person that is here illegallly does NOT want to draw unwanted attention.

So maybe you read about SOME cases, but SOME does not mean as a general rule, jump to conclusions much?

If you are stupid and leave your tax return where others can get to it.. then maybe you deserve to get it stolen.  Mail is a REALLY poor protection, why you people still use paper is beyond me, get with 21st century people.. electronic is the way to be, using paper is just DUMB


@Michael P  

That sentence is a complete fallacy, followed by factual inaccuracies and ended with ridiculous assertions. No wonder Lori and other jokers love it. 

This comment has been deleted


@Michael P

The support you get from fellow half brains is nothing I'd be proud about. It only reinforces the notion that most people are as clueless as you are. Nothing new there. 

This comment has been deleted


@Michael P  

Strong, well reasoned, incisive argument. Lori loves those. 

Come on, pal. Make your case. Use logic. Are you for or against it? Why? See, its not so hard. 

gary phillips

I have always found it rather dismaying that our government advises against carrying our social security card in our wallet or purse, yet what is our patient # on our Medicare card? It's our SSN!


@gary phillips  umm.. the reason is SSN is an OFFICIAL government document has NOTHING to do with the number.. can you think for yourself or do you need help tying your shoes?

The SSN CARD is a form of OFFICIAL identification, so keeping in the wallet with your Birth certificate, Driver license and any other identification makes you a mark for ID theft.. duh!

Gordon Shumway


Well idiot, suppose he does not receive or want anything from Government?

Why should he be GOVERNMENT identified?

what type of liberal are you anyway? ancestor of slave owner or slave?

gary phillips

@ATL VM @gary phillips If you refrained from your insults long enough to use your brain, you would have seen the stupidity of your reply. Does one NOT carry their Medicare card? Does the Medicare card NOT have your SSN on it? Does that not STILL make you a mark for ID theft? Double Duh!

Lori Smith

@gary phillips  

That's so true but identities can be stolen in a myriad of other ways. Lax security measures at retailers/other places also don't help. I was one of the unfortunate victims of the Target security breach. I have been offered credit monitoring for a year, but I understand once that information is out there they sometimes don't use it or even sell it for months. After that I will have to look over my shoulder or pay for it myself. It can take years to recover from identity theft, for some the effects continue forever. I don't think social security numbers should be used for credit at all.

Your Medicare card: Go ahead, leave home without it


Consumers Confused Whether Health Care Providers, Employment Agencies and Utilities are Entitled to a SSN


When Are You Legally Obligated To Give Someone Your Social Security Number?


Todd Bellows

Any bio-metric (fingerprint, retina scan, etc.) is converted into a password.  Once this password is stolen the bio-metric is useless.  You only have two retinas and 10 fingerprints.  After these are used up you will be given a mark on either the back of your hand or your forehead that will be randomized at each use.

James Oleary

@Todd Bellows  Ah, the old mark of the devil conspiracy theory. Laughing.

Sunny McCullough

@James Oleary @Todd Bellows  Right, James, Lol.  not. :/

Biden:  “Our constitutional journey did not stop then and it must not stop now, Judge. And we'll be faced with equally consequential decisions in the 21st century.Can a microscopic tag be implanted in a person's body to track his every movement? There's actual discussion about that. You will rule on that -- mark my words -- before your tenure is over.Can brain scans be used to determine whether a person's inclined toward criminality or violent behavior? You will rule on that.”Below is the link to Biden’s questioning.  Search “Biden” on the filter by speaker dropdown tab(begins at 1:06:45).http://www.c-span.org/video/?188437-1/roberts-confirmation-hearing-day-1

Forget wearable tech, embeddable implants are already hereBy Keiron Monks, for CNNupdated 1:08 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/08/tech/forget-wearable-tech-embeddable-implants/ 


@Todd Bellows  made up story, can't even begin to put any effort to dispute this.  I guess some people just need attention at any cost.

Scott Knipfing

Pass the fair tax and the problem is greatly reduced.

Vincent Wolf

@Scott Knipfing That does nothing to prevent credit theft and ID theft.  Just because you don't have an income tax and report using your SSN doesn't mean a thief can't get access to opening hundreds of new accounts in your name.  The blame is the system of using one password for almost anything.  A multiple access tier is needed with one physical (like fingerprints or eyescans), a key (thumb drive, whatever), and a multiple layered password SEQUENCE that is used only once like your garage door opener in that it changes EVERYtime you use it.  Few thieves would have the resources to pool a person's multiple security steps -- thieves will look elsewhere they take the easiest approach always.

Scott Knipfing

The reason why your SSN is used so much is all the IRS reporting that is required.  Pass the fair tax and no one except you r employer and the SS Administration need to know you SSN.  As I said, the problem becomes greatly reduced.


@Scott Knipfing  still wrong.  SSN is used for CREDIT moron, insurance, everyone (major companies) has it.. did you even READ the article or just browse headlines?  STILL has nothing to do with FAIR TAX.. ZERO.

WE are talking about ID change not TAX fool


@Scott Knipfing  fair tax has ZERO to do with identification.  Stay on topic fool.  We are talking about an ALTERNATIVE to SSN.. is reading comprehension lacking for you?

Gordon Shumway

This is another GOVT big brother ploy to tattoo all of us, aka BIOMETRICS.

Away for them to track us 24/ 7 in everything we do. aka TAX COLLECTION


So I don't want to VOLUNTEER ANYTHING TO THEM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! including my $

Don't want, Don't give.

Just leave me ALONE I will prosper on my own or die.

Fred Mensing

@Gordon Shumway   Gordon good to see you back !!   You are right, govt can screw up a 1 car funeral.   Remember the idea of planting a chip in newborns to record all their important info.  That time is coming because most people are sheep and want govt to control their life.

This comment has been deleted

Gordon Shumway

@zindel bauchi You're kidding right.

Govt and Law ENFORCEMENT cronies are the biggest thieves and ABUSERS of our ID and

FREEDOMS today,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,not the RUSSIANS,CHINESE, CRIMINALS or TERRORIST.but


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