Hacking Social Security Numbers and How to Protect Your Identity

According to a recent journal article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it is possible to use publicly available data on state and date of birth to predict someone’s Social Security number, particularly if they were born after 1988 and in smaller states. The ability to use statistic inference to predict the sensitive data exposes the Social Security numbers to identity fraud risks on “mass scales,” the article said.

Social Security numbers “were designed as identifiers at a time when personal computers and identity theft were unthinkable; today, abused as authentication devices, they enable an ‘architecture of vulnerability,’ in which losses are incurred even in absence of fraud, because of costs caused by attempts to defend, and exploit, the system,” the article concluded.

The researchers from Carnegie Mellon University analyzed Social Security numbers of people who have died to detect statistical patterns in the assignment of numbers. They were then able to use those patterns to predict a range of values likely to include a living person’s Social Security number. Birth data, meanwhile, can be inferred from data brokers, voter registration lists, online white pages, and social-networking profiles, the report said.

The researchers identified in a single attempt the first five Social Security digits for 44 percent of the records of the people listed as dead from 1989 to 2003 and the complete Social Security numbers in fewer than 1,000 attempts for 8.5 percent of those records. On average, the researchers matched on the first attempt the first five digits for 7 percent of all records for people born nationwide between 1973 and 1988!

“Extrapolating to the U.S. living population, this would imply the potential identification of millions of SSNs for individuals whose birth data were available,” the article says. How to Monitor and Protect your Identity

Fortunately, there are many services available to help protect your identity when you are offline and online. I like to keep an inexpensive home office paper shredder in my study and any paper trash that has my name, address and/or social security number is shredded. As an added measure to avoid reassemblers, I keep two recycling boxes in my office which I use to divide the shredded document and put out the boxes on alternate weeks.

 From on online perspective, I like to use the free government service – annnalcreditreport.com – to check my credit reports in addition to the major bureau’s for checking my FICO credit score. At the end of the day, you need to be careful with your sensitive documents and a few extra added measures – online and offline – can ensure you identify is as safe as possible. 

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