How to Guess a Social Security Number and Get Famous on the Internet

The latest hot topic on the identity theft front is a paper published on Monday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science by two professors at Carnegie Mellon on how easy it is to guess a person’s social security number.

SocialSecurityposter2 That day Ars Technica reported on it. Also, the authors of the paper started a blog on it. The AP picked it up Tuesday. CrunchGear blogged on it then too. And Wednesday brought posts from Wise Bread and Wallet Pop.

This is a great story. It combines several of my favorite themes. There’s the ever amusing hysteria over identity theft, which apparently renders a person incapable of rational thought and perspective. There are the unintended consequences of seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time government policies. And there is the recurring phenomenon of folks who report and comment on academic papers without reading and/or understanding them.

The researchers, Alessandro Acquisti and Ralph Gross, developed a methodology for guessing SSNs based on publicly available databases and some often publicly available data about people, specifically their date and place of birth. The method is orders of magnitude less accurate than suggested in the blogosphere, but it may be a lot more accurate than you might imagine. To understand why requires a bit of a lesson on the history and mechanics of Social Security Numbers.

When SSNs were invented in the 1930s nobody intended them to be secure or particularly hard to decipher. The main concern was that they be easy to issue in a pre-computer age. Each number was (and still is) made up of three groups of digits. The first three, known as the Area Number (AN) defined codes that were doled by state, so that local  Social Security offices in each state could issue numbers without consulting a central registry. The most populous state, New York, got 85 ANs to use (050 to 134) and the least populous, Alaska, got only one, 574.

The next two digits, the Group Number (GN) has no particular significance except that it defines a “group” of 10,000 possible numbers. Each Social Security office uses up an entire group block before going on to the next one. (Which was usually the next even number. Only once 98 was used up would they resort to odd GNs.) And then there are the last four digits, known simply as a Serial Number (SN). These are assigned in order until the group block runs out.

None of this was (or is) even vaguely a secret.  The Social Security Administration went so far as to regularly publish a table listing which group numbers had been used in each state by year, to aid in the detection of fake SSNs.

That said, it was still nearly impossible to guess a person’s SSN even if you knew basic information about them, such as where and when they were born. Enter two well meaning government innovations with delightfully Orwellian names, the Death Master File (DMF) and the Enumerated at Birth (EAB)program.

The DMF is a very long list of dead people. It contains, among other things, the deceased’s date and place of birth and SSN. This is useful to three groups 1) amateur genealogists 2) those who want to detect people fraudulently using the SSNs of dead folks and 3) Carnegie Mellon professors who want to use the records of recently deceased young people to build a really good database of what SSNs were being given out where and when.

They could do that because of the EAB. It may surprise you young ‘uns, but until about 20 years ago, babies did not have SSNs. (Remember the movie Big? There’s a scene in which Tom Hanks almost gets caught because he has no SSN.) A person applied for a SSN when they started working or opened their first interest-bearing bank account, which is to say at a relatively random point in time, ten to twenty years after birth.

Then somebody in Washington figured out they could stop a whole lot of tax cheating if they made taxpayers list the SSNs of their claimed dependents. As a part of this scheme, they started the EAB, which makes filing for a SSN a routine part of maternity ward paperwork, along with getting a birth certificate. And presto, for people born after the late 1980s, knowing their date and place of birth and SSN gives you a significant insight into the SSNs of other people born there and then.

Acquisti and Gross may or may not be the first to work this out, but they are apparently the first to realize what a great big splash could be made by pointing it out publicly. Today, knowledge of a person’s SSN plays the role that knowledge of a person’s true name played in certain primitive societies. A person whose SSN becomes known to the dark forces will have no end of evil spells cast upon them. Suggest that there is a sinister way in which an SSN can be divined and you’ve got the makings of some great viral internet buzz.

Just to make sure, Acquisti and Gross added in the speculation that an evil-doer could find dates and places of birth from sites such as Facebook. Identity theft and damage done by social networking in one story? This one has legs.

Only 48 hours after the original paper was posted Wallet Pop breathlessly told us

… new research indicates that it is possible to determine one out of every ten social security numbers knowing only a place of birth and birthdate!

Which, if true, would no doubt occasion immediate Congressional hearings. Alas, the numbers are bit off. Actual readers of the paper (as opposed to readers of blog posts based on other blog posts based on wire stories based on press releases about the paper) know the accuracy to be just a bit less than one in ten.

The odds of guessing right depends on the year of birth and the state. To maximize the chances of guessing right, you want a recent year for which the data is nice and clean and EAB is well ensconced, but not so recent that there are too few entries in the DMF for people born that year. And smaller states are much easier because fewer babies are born there each day.

For somebody born in Alaska in 1998, essentially the best case scenario for guessing right, Acquisti and Gross estimate they could get a full SSN 58% of the time within one thousand attempts. My calculations translate that into a 1 in 1153 chance for each guess. You can see how that might be confused with 1 in 10. For somebody born in New York in 1998, the paper estimates the probability of getting it right in 1000 tries at 3%, which I work out to be a 1 in 32,831.

We might get Congressional hearings anyway. A 1 in 1153 chance of guessing right, even if it only applies to tiny number of Americans, isn’t okay. This isn’t a hard problem to fix, the Social Administration just has to abandon a geographic allocation system that stopped making sense during the Johnson Administration. And I think we can allow 11 year-old Alaskans to get new SSNs.

That said, there is no need to get particularly excited about this. I can forgive Acquisti and Gross for hyping their paper. Even associate professors gotta make a living. But everybody else really ought to check their sources before they use exclamation points.

No Comments

  • By Kosmo @ The Casual Observer, July 9, 2009 @ 9:38 am

    Yeah, I saw this and thought it was ridiculously hyped, too. Are these numbers really earth shattering? While they may be disturbing to some people, it really shouldn’t be a huge shock, with the knowledge of the SSN system that was known to the public.

    I think some people overlooked the fact that the odds quoted were the odds of “guessing in fewer than 1000 attempts”.

    You’re correct that abandoning the geographic system is probably the best route to go, as it would make guessing much more difficult.

  • By mwarden, July 9, 2009 @ 10:37 am

    There is no need to guess the full SSN. Damage can be done by guessing the serial number component. So, realistically, I don’t need the group number; I just need to know how far into the group the SS office was when you were born. Not trivial, but surely less than 1 in 1153 if 1 in 1153 are the chances of guessing the group number AND the serial number. And the important part is that the chances without this approach are 1 in 10,000.

  • By mwarden, July 9, 2009 @ 10:49 am

    @Kosmo,

    No, the best way to go is to stop confusing identification with authentication.

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, July 9, 2009 @ 10:53 am

    For Americans born after 1989, if you know the place and date of birth, guessing the first five digits is relatively unchallenging. 1 in 1153 pretty much assumes that the first five are known for sure, as is nearly the case for a young Alaskan. So I don’t think the odds are meaningfully better for guessing just the serial number.

  • By Kosmo @ The Casual Observer, July 9, 2009 @ 11:01 am

    @ mwarden: lol. Yes, of course :) But this seems unlikely to change in the immediate future, so at least mix things up a bit.

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, July 9, 2009 @ 11:21 am

    “Stop confusing identification with authentication” really nails it. The core problem here is that SSNs just weren’t designed to be used the way we are using them. They were meant to be no more significant than phone numbers.

  • By Paul, July 9, 2009 @ 12:59 pm

    Unfortunately, when I was in college it was quite easy to find someone’s serial number. You had to print it on virtually every document you signed, including all exams (which were often left outside the professor’s office for students to pick up, where anyone could see them). I wonder if any other institutions regularly make a portion of SSNs so easily accessible?

  • By SJ, July 9, 2009 @ 1:00 pm

    The DMF sounds rather sinister.

    So is the basic algorithm —
    1. Look up person born recently, along with state and DOB.
    2. Use the state and DOB to figure out the first 5 digits with records.
    3. Scour the DMF for people who’s DOB bounds the target and then use statistical guessing?

    If I could get a phd for that…

  • By Justine, July 9, 2009 @ 1:14 pm

    I don’t know if this has changed, but in Canada you typically register for your SIN (our equivalent of SSN) when you want to start working. No EAB for us!

  • By Steve, July 9, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

    When I was in the military, we used SSNs for all sorts of identification purposes. For instance anyone who wanted to write to me while I was at boot camp had to put my SSN as part of the address, right on the front of the envelope. In addition, once or twice I was handed a list of everyone in my unit, including their SSN. I wasn’t a clerk, so presumably there were people who saw these lists even more often.

    Clearly the horse is already out of the gate. Social security number != secret. There is zero reason we should ever treat it as such. Just another part of the modern credit system that needs a serious overhaul.

  • By Kosmo @ The Casual Observer, July 9, 2009 @ 2:18 pm

    @ Paul – yes, unfortunately. For larger classes (100+ish) our exams scores were listed by last 4 of SSN in a public area.

    So if you had a class of 100, you could immediately have a 1:100 shot at guessing the last 4 of a particular person, if you were working from a class roster.

    You could cut this down even further for certain people. The guys who is always bragging about his high score is probably near the very top … even better if someone tells you their exact score.

    And since a lot of these people have lived in one city most of their lives, the first 5 digits are quite easy … home address was listed in the online student directory.

    To say nothing of the fact that the professors had a list of the name/last_4.

    In Iowa, driver’s license number was “IA XXX-XX-XXXX” (X = SSN) until at least the late 1990s … and some stores would make you put DL # on a check – right next to your name and address!

  • By gpr, July 9, 2009 @ 2:21 pm

    How do I know if my guess is correct?

    You’d also need some sort of verification. You’d need to put the identity into a credit card request form, or some sort of online form where it does instant verification – compares the name and SS number, and if correct allows you to proceed. And most of those forms have some security (5 tries and you’re out type of things).

    So to actually create damage you need:
    1 Name
    2 Birth location and date
    3 DOB must be after 1987 (?)
    4 Algorithm for guessing.
    5 Some place to check it, ie place where victim does business.
    6 Ability to hack that system.

    I will move to a cave and shun all modern technology. But not because of this.

  • By Chris, July 9, 2009 @ 2:25 pm

    Ars Technica’s article points out a further worry. Referring to testing the numbers against bank records, they said, “Given these numbers, the authors estimate that even a moderate-sized botnet of 10,000 machines could successfully obtain identity verifications for younger residents of West Virginia at a rate of 47 a minute.”

    Having a list of SSN’s matched to names this easily presents an obvious problem, and highlights the issue of how SSN’s are used modernly. I would hate to be the target of a Russian Mob botnet.

  • By Brandon, July 9, 2009 @ 2:31 pm

    Acquisti and Gross are pretty sharp researchers. I read and cited their papers a lot in my Information Warfare final project. If you are interested in this sort of thing, you should read their papers on social networks such as Facebook.

  • By Jim, July 9, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

    “even a moderate-sized botnet of 10,000 machines could successfully obtain identity verifications for younger residents of West Virginia at a rate of 47 a minute.”

    Am I the only one reading “moderate sized botnet of 10,000 machines” and sarcastically thinking “oh, doesn’t evereyone have one of those”?

    Seems to me if you’re a competent enough hacker to build a 10,000 botnet then you can probably do a whole lot more damage than figuring out someones SSN.

    Jim

  • By Jim, July 9, 2009 @ 3:17 pm

    BTW, great article Frank. The whole hype over this report seemed crazy to me. I thought everyone knew the first 5 digits were fairly easy to determine. Basically guessing an SSN amounts to a one in 10,000 guess to get the last 4 digits right?

  • By Jim, July 9, 2009 @ 4:28 pm

    Oops, last post should have said “first 3 digits” rather than first 5 digits.

  • By tm, July 9, 2009 @ 5:13 pm

    10,000 is hardly a moderately sized botnet these days. It would be considered fairly small. And besides, if you had control over 10k PCs, a good chunk of them will be used to login into banks where you’d be able to see the username and password. Which bypasses the entire trouble of stealing an SSN to setup a credit account, to buy hawkable stuff, hawking said stuff, somehow getting the money back to you. Plus it has the benefit of looking exactly like a normal transaction to the bank.
    Although, these days, botnets are generally rented to spammers.

    “Seems to me if you’re a competent enough hacker to build a 10,000 botnet then you can probably do a whole lot more damage than figuring out someones SSN.”
    It doesn’t take much competence, actually, such is the sad state of information security.

  • By zach, July 9, 2009 @ 6:00 pm

    I have always considered our SSNs to be pretty secure/safe.

    When I moved over here to Sweden I was assigned a personnummer, which is like a SSN. Here it is really easy, it kinda surprised me at first. The first 6 digits are your birthday followed by a random 4 digits. Which I am told are not so random. One of those 4 represents your sex (o-4 male, 5-9female or something) and another being your area of the country.

    example:
    840703-****

    Identity theft does not really seem to be an issue at all. Or people just don’t talk about it like Americans do.

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, July 9, 2009 @ 6:11 pm

    It seems to me that there must be easier ways to obtain SSNs of consumers illegally, especially if you want some for adults in big states.

  • By Roger, July 9, 2009 @ 10:18 pm

    Hunh, now I don’t know what to think. On one hand, it is rather worrisome that for someone reasonably young, a Social Security number is fairly easy to guess. I would have hoped, given the large role as personal identifier that SSNs have become, that at some point, someone would have tried to make it bit more randomized.

    On the other hand, 1 in 1153 is hardly great odds for guessing, especially if you have to do it by hand. And if you’ve gone to the trouble to create the sort of system needed to do rapid-fire guessing (like the 10,000 botnet systems that have been mentioned), it would seem to be more cost effective (and less likely to set off any warning bells) to just use them to spam the hell out of the country until you got some suckers to pony up their vital info.

    But then, being the upstanding citizen that I am, I would never recommend such a plan…

  • By GPR, July 9, 2009 @ 10:50 pm

    It seems to me that there must be easier ways to obtain SSNs of consumers illegally, especially if you want some for adults in big states.

    Exactly! Rather than go thru all this research and algorithms to guess SSN’s, then setting your botnet to the task of finding a bank, just skip it all.

    Use your botnet (what, you don’t have one?) to phish for information with fake Paypal or bank sign in screens. You’re likely to get older people with, you know, money. Or use an especially clever attack that was floating around last year where a virus downloads a malware bit of code that in turn captures stored passwords and sends them off.

    And, even with all this horrible stuff happening it still doesn’t present the scale of problem that the media presents, as Frank discussed a couple weeks ago.

  • By Kevin M, July 10, 2009 @ 10:08 am

    Not that I would ever do this, but I bet if someone called random people in the phone book claiming to be their bank and gave them a scary story about their account possibly being a victim of fraud you could probably get at least 1 out of 50 to give up sensitive info. You hear about these types of thing all the time.

    My guess is it’s usually something simple like this causing the most ID theft rather than some super-complicated online scheme.

  • By AA, July 11, 2009 @ 3:42 pm

    Hello – Your point about hype by people who have not actually read the paper is, unfortunately, spot-on (this is why having a FAQ and blog to explain what the paper is — and what it is *not* — is simply very useful for us authors). Also: thank you for actually reading the appendix! However, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater: you seem to be completely missing the point that for the largest states the prediction accuracies are low (as clearly stated in the manuscript), but for most other states they are concerningly high: if the entire SSN of 60% of individuals born in a state after 1988 can be matched with fewer than 1,000 attempts each, that makes their SSN equivalent to a 3-digit PIN. And you can read Microsoft’s Harley and Florencio et al (http://research.microsoft.com/pubs/74160/SEC2008CR.pdf or also http://research.microsoft.com/pubs/74162/hotsec07.pdf) to see why even a 6-digit PIN (let’s not talk about a 3-digit PIN!) are insecure when the attacker can spread the attacks over a large number of potential victims (which is the case here; note that botnets available for such distributed attacks nowawadys are, unfortunately, very cheap to rent). Also, please note that your 1-on-1153 estimate is not correct: I think you are assuming that on average 500 tries per SSN are in fact necessary – while in fact many SSNs will be matched with just 10 or 100 attempts. The problem here is that we are talking of potentially millions of SSNs (most small and medium states, and most years after 1988, up to 2009 or whenever the system is changed). BTW, the “open” availability of birth data in online social network is not speculative, but documented; see some previous work by the same authors at http://www.heinz.cmu.edu/~acquisti/papers/privacy-facebook-gross-acquisti.pdf (or another draft manuscript I would be happy to share with you).

    We agree with you that randomizing can provide a short term solution, and buy us some time (we say as much in the paper). But we seem to disagree on one point you make: that randomization can be the final solution. The message of the paper is quite simple: SSNs were not designed to be secure because they were not designed to be used for authentication. In fact, any number that you are asked to share with a endless list of other parties (from your bank to your doctor and your movie rental company) *cannot* also be used as your password – regardless of how randomly (or not randomly) that number is issued. However, SSNs have been used (and abused) as passwords in the private sector (especially by Credit Reporting Agencies) for years, contributing to the rise of identity theft (in the US, knowledge of a person’s name, DOB, and SSN is sometimes sufficient condition to impersonate that person). Perhaps, with these results, we can help finally stop this abuse (and the associated costs): at what moment can you not consider a financial firm “negligent” if it uses a simple 3-digit PIN to authenticate you?

    In any case – thank you for your comments on our paper.

    Best regards,

    AA & RG @ CMU

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, July 11, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

    I think we agree on all the substantive issues here. The core of the problem is the (relatively recent) idiocy of using SSNs as an authentication key. If we need a national authentication system, let the government issue everybody RSA dongles. That’s a few hundred million of stimulus even I can get behind.

    That said, there’s no good reason that the Social Security Administration cannot make SSNs a lot harder to guess without much trouble. The geographic numbering scheme, designed to allow local offices to issue numbers, became an anachronism in 1973, when the SSA centralized that function. Today the SSA’s Baltimore office issues numbers for the whole country based on the zip code of the applicant, for what I have taken to calling here The English Reason, i.e., because that’s the way we’ve always done it.

    As for the numbers, I got the 1 in 1153 figure by assuming that all guesses were equally likely to be successful. I am sure this is not really the case, that the first guess has a relatively high batting average and by guess number 900 the situation is increasingly hopeless, but I didn’t have an easy way of estimating that density function. Nevertheless, 1 in 1153 is, in fact, the average probability of success for the first 1000 tries for an Alaskan 1998 SSN.

    Calculation is as follows. 58% success within 1000 tries implies 42% failure after 1000 tries, or 1000 consecutive failed guesses. Thus, where f is the probability of failure, f^1000 = 0.42. I get f = 0.9991329, so average success probability is 0.0008671, or 1 in 1153.

    As I said in the post, although 1 in 1153 is nothing like 1 in 10, it’s still not okay. However, Alaska is a bit of a special case. As Gov. Palin can tell you, the folks in the lower 49 tend not to think it counts as a real state at all. Yes, there are many small and medium sized states, but most of us live in the big ones. More than half of Americans live in (and are issued SSNs in) the biggest 9 states.

    And as for the privacy risk of FaceBook et al., I have all the sympathy you would expect from a 40something who blogs under an assumed name.

  • By Matt, July 12, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

    I’m not shaking in my boots about id theft.

    But it is probably not good practice to sling the last 4 digits around so frequently. Credit reports, for example, display your SSN as ***-**-1234. Most people consider this safe, but with knowledge of a person’s birthplace, and their last 4 digits, only the middle 2 need to be guessed.

  • By mwarden, July 13, 2009 @ 9:27 am

    @Matt,

    Exactly! The part they show in order to maintain privacy is the part that is closest to random (which isn’t very)! I’m sure we could sit here and explain why this practice is due to some psychological bias when we are thinking of some content as a “number” (which an SSN is not) and want to show the least-significant digits instead of the first few characters (as we would in a string). But such a practice would be boring and keep me from getting to work on time, the former of which really bothers me.

    At this point, the practice of displaying only the part that is hard to guess is just further reason that we need to do away with SSN as an authenticator. It’s completely illogical that a process can be certain that someone is who he says he is just because he recites 9 digits that are for all intents and purposes public knowledge (and not even guaranteed to be unique).

  • By Cody McKibben, July 13, 2009 @ 3:46 pm

    That’s a scary reality. Thanks for the detailed overview Frank. Might have to go change my Facebook privacy settings now…

  • By Jim, July 14, 2009 @ 2:26 pm

    I think its cool that the authors take the time to swing by and discuss their paper.

    The main point is one I think we can all agree on SSN’s are not secure and should not be used as passwords. If SSN’s weren’t misused as a ‘security’ feature then it wouldn’t matter how easy it is to guess one.

  • By Gerard, July 15, 2009 @ 3:34 am

    Out of curiosity (and not being American), how important is the SSN to privacy? In other words, exactly how much can information can I glean from having your SSN, name and address?

  • By Cartoon Games, March 19, 2010 @ 8:22 pm

    This is the problem with Government issued documents. But there is no other logical way to group them, at least not yet. Maybe someone will come up with something new. I don’t know how successful they can be, but it’s an issue that has to be fixed.

    But like Gerard says, the SSN isn’t like your credit card number, but as with any other personal identification, you want to keep it relatively secret.

  • By Charles Clarke, April 30, 2010 @ 8:12 am

    If you can reasonably well determine the first 5 digits by knowing the date and state of birth, then you only have to guess the last 4 digits. 1000 totally random(non-repeated) tries gives you a 10% chance. 10000 tries gives you a 100% chance.

    And, as has been pointed out earlier, having access to some place that shows the last 4 digits also gives you a 100% chance. In fact, the quick way to do this would probably be if you start with these and then gather the other information.

  • By OhioScott, August 2, 2010 @ 8:07 pm

    Great story. I remember about 10-15 years ago, some MIT researcher built a computer that could figure out the first (or last, I can’t remember) 3 or 4 numbers of a credit card. CNN was all aghast..aghast! Turns out that after a quick read of the actual research, it took the guy years with hundreds of thousands of computer hours to figure it out. Oh yeah, the funny part was he already knew the credit card number!

  • By Joe Warner, March 26, 2011 @ 10:02 am

    Keep in mind that the bankruptcy court is also your friend. Anyone who files for bankruptcy, no matter what chapter, has to declare their SSN, and it is checked by the court. This becomes public info. Lately, the courts list only the last four numbers, but still good. Personally, I had to hunt an individual, and used a script written in iMacros, an add-in to Firefox. basically, you create a list of all possible SSNs in a spreadsheet. That is your data file. Then, the script takes the info to a site like Intellius, checking if the number matches the last name. If you want to get even more sophisticated, you can incorporate an algorithm that checks the validity of the SSN. (remember, not all SSN are valid numbers). Buy me a beer if the info is useful.

  • By portable ice makers for camping, June 20, 2011 @ 7:17 pm

    I do consider all the ideas you have offered on your post. They are very convincing and can certainly work. Still, the posts are very short for newbies. May you please extend them a bit from next time? Thank you for the post.

  • By jackson, November 7, 2011 @ 7:47 am

    I always feel our SSNs to be pretty secure/safe. but these results are shocking to me.
    anybody can play with our personal info like that.

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  • By A Concerned Citizen, July 18, 2013 @ 9:02 am

    The other concern is that some identity theft if done by people picking random SSNs because some have not been used yet. Then they use their own (or an assumed name). There was an incident involving a 2 year old who was given a SSN that had been stolen and used by someone before she was born. So she had a credit rating (a bad one) before she ever came out of the womb. I think in that case, the child should automatically get a new SSN. If SS Amin made a mistake and gave you someone else’s SSN, they would have to fix it. Everyone should have the right to a clean number when they start out. If the SS Amin can’t find a way to keep numbers secure, why should they penalize a child an his/her parents for it? Once again, the system is broken and part of this is that we are using an obsolete number system to do a modern job in a modern technology age. The problem is, I would be more afraid of a big overhaul and fix. For example a whole new number system. At this point, they should just randomize the numbers nationwide, which would help people in the future. Then the people most at risk should have special recourse if they get their numbers stolen. That would be people born between about 1988 and the present – about 25 years. If those people have their number burned, they have the right to a new one. And SS Admin gets to take care of the fallout.

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