18 Fast Facts You Didn’t Know About Social Security Numbers

President Roosevelt signing the Social Security Act of 1935 in the Cabinet Room of the White House.

This weekend I was looking through the safe that holds all of my most important documents, like family birth certificates, insurance policies and the secret recipe for mom’s sauce, when I ran across my Social Security card.

Now I’ll wager that, if you poll a room full of people at a triple-keg Super Bowl party, over half of them wouldn’t be able to tell you the license plate number of their car — and that’s before the kick-off.   However, if you asked those same folk to recite their Social Security number, they would all be able to do it forward and backward — even after the kegs are empty.

If you’re like me, maybe you’ve wondered if there was any rhyme or reason to how Social Security card numbers are determined.   Well, wonder no more, because while you were out enjoying the weekend, I was sitting here in my chair researching the story behind our Social Security numbers.   I know.   Don’t say a word.

Anyway, here’s what I found out:

1. Since 1936, over 420 million different Social Security numbers have been issued.

2. Over 5.5 million new numbers are assigned every year.

3. The first three digits of a Social Security number are known as the area number.   Area numbers assigned before 1972 reflect the state where you applied for your number; otherwise, they are based upon the Social Security card application mailing address zip-code.

4. Some people believe the next two digits, called the group number, helps identify a person’s race.   It doesn’t.

5. The two-digit group number was actually created as way to organize Social Security Administration filing cabinets into sub-groups to make them more manageable.

6. The last four digits on a Social Security card are serial numbers that are issued consecutively within a group from 0001 to 9999.

7.   Area numbers are assigned geographically with the lowest numbers in the northeast and the highest in the northwest.   That practice will no longer apply, however, after a new randomized assignment methodology officially goes into effect on June 25, 2011.

8. Based upon the original assignment criterion, one would naturally expect a Maine resident to have the lowest Social Security number ever issued.   However, New Hampshire was ultimately given the 001 area number designator so that social security number 001-01-0001 could be assigned to Social Security Board Chairman John G. Winant, who was a three-time governor of the state.

9. Winant eventually declined the honor of having the lowest social security card number.   As a result, it eventually found its way to Grace D. Owen of Concord, New Hampshire.

10. Officially, the first social security number issued was 055-09-0001 and it was assigned to John David Sweeney.

11. Sweeney died of a heart attack in 1974 at the age of 61; ironically, he never received a single penny of Social Security benefits.

12.   In many cases, invalid Social Security numbers can be easily spotted.   That’s because cards have not been issued where the first three digits are 000, 666, or higher than 772.     Valid cards are also never issued with the middle two digits or the final four digits all zeros.

13. In 1938 a sample Social Security card with the number 078-05-1120 was inserted into new wallets manufactured by the E. H. Ferree company in Lockport, New York.   Unfortunately, that number belonged to Hilda Schrader Whitcher, the secretary of an E.H. Ferree Vice President who decided to use her official number on the sample cards.   Nice guy, huh?

14. Not surprisingly, over 40,000 people have since claimed Mrs. Whitcher’s Social Security number as their own at one time or another.

15. Mrs. Whitcher was eventually issued a new number, but not before being questioned by the FBI.   They wanted to know why so many people had her number.

16.  If you object to certain digits in your Social Security number you can appeal for a new one, but only if you can prove your concerns are firmly rooted in your religious beliefs or cultural traditions.

17. Social Security numbers are not reused after the card holder dies.

18. Even though numbers aren’t reused, the Social Security Administration says the current numbering system is capable of providing enough new numbers for “several generations into the future.”     That means Social Security numbers will still be available well past 2030.   Even if the benefit money won’t.

Comments

  1. 1

    says

    I’ve always wondered what would happen when they run out of numbers. It seems that under the current system there are a billion possible numbers. With the current population around 350 million, we’ve used roughly a third just for people that are alive today. Add that to all those who have died, plus we seem to have a pretty good birth rate, and I can definitely see us running out. I hope that they don’t leave it as a problem to deal with until just a few years before they expand the system. Think of all the computer programs that are coded to accept nine numerical characters. It’d be a bigger mess to re-program that than it was Y2K!

    • 2

      not rhetorical says

      add 1 digit and the combinations are tenfold. doesn’t even have to be the same entry field, can be a “century” number/field.

  2. 3

    says

    Very interesting! I was just thinking about social security numbers this weekend when we were talking about how our state once had just 2 area codes,and we had the same area code forever. Then it changed 3 times.

    I do wonder if the need to increase to ten number or whatever will never be necessary…

    I learned the geographic part in high school. I just figured it was like a random number generator up to that point.

  3. 4

    says

    I really like my Soc. number because it’s super simple, but probably anyone with enough time on their hands could guess it. I’ve never worried about it though, but maybe I should. ;)

  4. 7

    says

    That is a great research! I always thought it was done randomly. I wonder if it’s the same in Canada. Ours is a three series of three numbers.

    • 8

      Kat says

      Yes, DoNotWait, our first three numbers denote the area in which you applied. Not sure what if any significance the last two sets of three have. When I was in HR, if a new employee had a set different then the three I was used to seeing, I would ask where they were from as an ice breaker to a nervous new person. :)

  5. 9

    says

    Love the last line about benefits being available! Great way to end the article.

    I wish SSN weren’t used as both as private key and a public key, but that’s another debate…

  6. 11

    says

    @Beagle: Part of the reason for the SSA’s randomization methodology program is to further stretch the pool of available numbers. Then again, it may spur the economy just a little bit. I remember Y2K computer protection became a mini-industry unto itself!
    @Everyday: I know what you mean, Kris. The area code thing is just way out of control here in Southern California.
    @LittleHouse: I never get simple numbers for anything. The Honeybee has a SSN that is ridiculously easy to remember. Mine, fuggedaboudit! LOL
    @DoNotWait: Why, thank you. But I have to give all the thanks to the Social Security Administration’s website.
    @Charles: I agree with you about the private and public key thing.
    @krantcents: Just curious, are the Social Security card numbers typed on a typewriter?

  7. 14

    says

    When I was younger I thought the goverment some how kept track of every birth on a national scale and incremented each ss# by one each time a baby was born and they handed out a new card.

    Now I know the truth, that it’s the opposite and they are subtley counting down until the last person is born in this country. Then they will start ushering all the pregnant women into Canada to save our social security system.

  8. 15

    says

    Nice job digging up this info! I knew a little about SSN number because of where I work, but you educated me on a few point, so thanks!

    Poor Hilda Schrader, she really got the raw end of that one…

  9. 16

    says

    @Coach: Interesting theory you have there, Geoff. LOL
    @Money: Yeah, if I were Hilda I would have at least made sure I let all the air out her boss’s car tires one day while it was sitting in the company parking lot.

  10. 19

    says

    Hey Len, great article but you failed to mention the best part of Hilda’s story…that a bunch of people who were using her SS# weren’t trying to commit fraud. They actually thought it was their own number because it was in their wallet.

    Just goes to show you how dumb some people are, so I’m glad there are people like you out there educating us.

  11. 20

    says

    That picture reminds me of the Simpsons episode where Montgomery Burns has to enter his PIN.
    “Ah yes, it’s my Social Security Number! Let’s see…naught-naught-naught, naught-naught, naught-naught-naught…TWO. Damn that Roosevelt.”

  12. 21

    says

    @Investor: Good, because there will be a test on it tomorrow. ;-)
    @Robert: Glad you enjoyed itFirstGen.
    @FirstGen: Thanks for sharing that; funny if true! Now we all know the rest of the story.
    @Greg: I never saw that episode. Damn. Smithers should tell Burns he is using a card with an illegal number though. D’oh!

    • 25

      Avery says

      There is no way that your SSN begins with “666”, unless you are saying that your number begins with “600-66″ which is an Arizona number issued around July of 1988.

  13. 26

    charlie says

    Yom might have mentioned that all railroad workers were issued a 707 number when they first issued ss#’s

    • 27

      Len Penzo says

      I think you just did! Thanks for the additional trivia, charlie. Do you know why they did that?

      • 28

        Andrew says

        Len, it’s because up to this day, us railroad workers don’t pay into social security. Railroad Retirement was kind of a precursor to Social Security, and we still use it today. It’s basically Social Security Plus, where we pay in a bit more and get more out. The plus side is the government can’t touch it!

  14. 29

    Punks KRT says

    In the late 70’s; my twin brothers and I filed for our SS#’s at the same time. The first three (3) numbers are the same for all three of us, but since they are twins…the only difference in their numbers are the last digit only. Twins are treated differently? Anyway, they were in this case.

    • 31

      Pal says

      My sister an I have the same thing. our parents applied for ours at the same time. the numbers are mirrored except for the last. For my economics class I did a presentation on SSN’s and used the pic in the article as my intro pic.

  15. 32

    Rusty says

    3. The first three digits …. Area numbers assigned before 1972 reflect the state where you applied for your number; otherwise, they are based upon the Social Security card application mailing address zip-code.

    17. Social Security numbers are not reused after the card holder dies.

    18. Even though numbers aren’t reused, ….

    Len, can you tell me (you seem to be an adroit answer man), given 3, 17 and 18, why Obama has a SSN issued in Conecticut (he never lived there) and shares that same SS number with a Harrison J. Bounel?

    Inquiring minds would like to know. Thanks.

      • 34

        not rhetorical says

        11. Sweeney died of a heart attack in 1974 at the age of 61; ironically, he never received a single penny of Social Security benefits.

        Where do those pennies he paid in go?

  16. 35

    says

    You gave me a scare when you said that the Social Securiy numbers will outlast the Social Security money. I sure hope you are wrong. How long do you think that our government is going to last?

    • 36

      Len Penzo says

      Not much longer if our politicians continue to spend like drunken sailors by selling entitlements for votes, and we refuse to greatly reduce the size of our federal government.

    • 37

      Lisa says

      Social Security money will NOT run out — it is paid into constantly. The disbursements will probably not be what they are telling you now. Fewer payers + more payees = more slices out of a smaller pie. That money has never gone into a ‘lock box’ as some people seem to believe. If that were true, the first people who received Social Security would have collected nearly nothing — because they did not pay into it over their lives.

      And before you get mad about the Social Security system, just remember — it is what keeps crazy aunt Katherine, who doesn’t like anything or anyone, from having to live with you. Honestly, it’s a bargain.

      It’s Medicare you should be worried about. Without cost controls — that’s the disaster looming not too far on the horizon.

      • 39

        says

        actually, it’s everything the gov’t does you should be worried about.

        “It means that ordinary working Americans, like teachers, police officers and firefighters, who believe their payroll taxes are going toward their Social Security retirement are in for a surprise…Instead of going to the Social Security trust fund, their payroll contributions are being funneled directly into tax breaks for individuals and corporations” Robert Matsui (D-CA), Chairman House Ways & Means Subcommittee on Social Security, Associated Press, March 30, 2002.

        “Every dollar collected in (FICA) payroll taxes is spent the very minute, the very hour, the very day it comes in the door … any funds left over, they are spent on other programs or used to pay off the national debt. But nothing is saved. No money is stashed away in bank vaults; no investments made in real assets.” John C. Goodman, President of the National Center for Policy Analysis in an article published by the Washington Times, April 12, 2002.

        Senator Peter Fitzgerald (R-Illinois) on the Senate floor during lock-box debates, 1999: “A few years back Congress passed laws making it illegal for State and local governments to plunder the pension funds of their employees. But during all this time, where Congress has put these laws on the books and made it illegal in the private sector and at the State and local government level to plunder pension funds, we have gone on and on in Washington taking all the money that goes into the Social Security trust fund, taking every dime of it out, and spending it on some other program. As a result, as I speak now on the Senate floor, there is no money in the Social Security trust fund. All of it has been taken out and spent on other programs. They have put meaningless, nonmarketable, nonnegotiable securities in the Social Security trust fund, securities that have no economic value because they cannot be sold to raise cash. Right now our Government is building up, theoretically, surpluses in the Social Security trust fund, but they are taking all that money out and spending it. So when we actually need it to pay benefits, beginning in the year 2014, there will be no money there. No matter what the balance of those bogus IOUs is in the Social Security trust fund, in the year 2014–whether that balance is $1 trillion or $5 trillion–they are of no assistance in paying benefits to those who depend on Social Security. The country will either have to raise taxes or cut benefits to make up for the shortfall that is anticipated after the year 2014. This legislation is basic, decent common sense. We should not allow Congress to continue frittering away the Social Security trust fund. I urge all my colleagues to support it and end this outrageous practice of plundering the Social Security trust fund, to the detriment of our Nation’s seniors and those who will be desiring to live on Social Security benefits in the next century.”

      • 40

        Michael says

        It seems to have gone over most people’s heads when Alan Greenspan said in a publicized Congressional hearing: “We can guarantee cash [and Social Security benefit checks until Hell freezes over], but we cannot guarantee purchasing power!”

        Interesting concept when you think about it. And most won’t.

  17. 42

    says

    I received my card in 1942 and clearly stamped on it were these words: NOT TO BE USED FOR IDENTIFICATION. I thought it was a good idea; however, it seems no one could dream up a different plan to use for security. Result: the sentence no longer appears on the cards and my number is used for whatever these days. Typical!!

    • 43

      Richard says

      Wow! You got your number the year I was born. You must have been a baby when your card was issued. Do you still have your original card? I must be a real collector’s item.

  18. 44

    Richard says

    My Social Security number was issued while I was still in high school in 1957 and a rep came to school to give us our numbers. My card clearly states in big letters “NOT FOR IDENTIFICATION PURPOSES”, so I never carry it with me and I never put my number on anything unless it relates to Social Security or taxes. I give it to no one else. It’s none of their business unless they want to supplement my SS check each month. Then I’llgive it to them, but it will never happen. I worked at the FDR library several years ago and I found that one of FDR’s concerns with SS was that the numbers would become national identity numbers like Nazi Germany had. Funny how no one else was bothered by that and that’s exactly what happened. I also have a Railroad Retirement Number that was issued at the same time because I grew up in a railroad town and my dad, brothers, and both grandfathers all worked for the railroad (I did, too, in the 1960s). Talk about confusion when I retired because I had money in both accounts!

    • 45

      Len Penzo says

      Amazing how the SS numbers became ID numbers. I remember when I was in college in the mid 80s, the professors used to post our grades on their doors. To ensure anonymity, instead of using our names they listed everyone’s grades by our entire SSN – not just the last 4 digits, THE WHOLE NUMBER! You can bet they don’t do that anymore. LOL

    • 46

      Sam says

      @ Richard – I’ve started to do the same thing. I foudn out last year that someone had setup phone service using mine (thankfully they were current). The investigator told me they think she got the # from one of my medical records. So I’ve specifially asked all Dr offices to X out my #. And I don’t give it to anyone who isn’t govt anymore. I know there’s probably still residue of my info out there but I’m hoping that any records with it will age out into oblivion…

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