Question: I always thought that my Social Security Number was my most acceptable ID.  Why do I often see it printed with “Xs” in place of the first 5 numbers?

Answer: Although SSNs continue to be very acceptable forms of identification, they are neither as confidential nor as private as they once were. The first SSNs were created in 1936 to record workers’ employment earnings. Since only one person could be assigned a specific SSN, it was considered to be a perfect ID.  With time, its purpose kept growing.

New laws were enacted requiring inclusion of the SSN when filing federal income-tax returns. Finally, both government agencies and private businesses began using SSNs for employee files, medical records, credit and banking accounts and much more.

Currently, SSNs are required for birth and death certificates, property records, tax-lien records and court files.  Public records, which also require their inclusion, are increasingly being posted online, making them available to anyone with Internet access.

Since both government agencies and private businesses have implemented computer records for their filing systems, SSNs are considered an accessible piece of consumer data for identity thieves. Such thieves often access the credit history, bank and charge accounts, and utility accounts that are identifiable by each specific SSN.

Different states have taken severe actions to significantly reduce the inappropriate display and misuse of their residents’ SSNs. In California, it is now illegal for both government and private businesses to:

  • Post or publicly display SSNs.
  • Print SSNs on identification cards or badges.
  • Require people to transmit a SSN over the Internet unless the connection is secure or the number is encrypted.
  • Require people to log onto a website using a SSN unless a password is also required, and
  • Print SSNs on anything mailed to a customer unless required by law, or the document is a form or application.

Existing law also prohibits the county recorder from displaying more than the last four digits of a SSN on a document that is filed and, therefore, available for public view.

Protect your SSN:

There are several ways to protect your SSN:

  1. Never print your SSN on your checks, business cards, address labels or other identification information.
  2. If you do not need to carry your SSN with you, don’t.
  3. Pay attention to the Personal Earnings and Benefits Estimate Statements that Social Security mails to you each year. If incorrect information is reported, notify it immediately.

If you believe that someone else is using your SSN, immediately contact the Federal Trade Commission at 877-438-4338.  You may also telephone the following credit reporting agencies to reduce the likelihood of future abuse:

  • TransUnion:  800-680-7289
  • Equifax:  888-766-0008
  • Experian: 888-397-3742

Ironically, you will need to provide your SSN to each of these agencies to ensure that they can find your file.

More Information:

For more information, see the SSA booklet “Identity Theft and Your Social Security Number” at ssa.gov, and in the search button type “Identity Theft.”