Chances of someone else using your SSN
Got your number
In the category of “this isn’t right,” the chance is one in 7 that someone else is using your Social Security Number. That is a serious problem since so much depends upon it.
“Odds someone else has your SSN? One in 7
Posted: Friday, December 3 2010 at 06:00 am CT by Bob Sullivan
What are the odds someone else has used your Social Security number? One in 7.
That’s the stunning conclusion of a San Diego company's analysis of 290 million Social Security numbers, which found that 40 million of them have been attached to more than one name. The study, conducted by the fraud-fighting firm ID Analytics, is the first of its kind that’s been made available to the public.
We first wrote about the problem of “SSN-only” identity theft five years ago, and estimated that millions of Americans were on the “secret list of identity theft victims” whose SSNs had been misappropriated by an imposter to obtain work or credit.
The IRS often knows when this happens, when the imposter pays taxes. The Social Security Administration knows, too, for the same reason. And the nation's credit bureaus usually know, because the imposter often ends up applying for some form of credit. Plenty of financial institutions also have access to this information.
But no one is telling you. In short, all these government agencies and financial firms don't think you have a right to know.
We're no closer to finding out who's on that list today, but at least we now know how big the problem is: much bigger than we originally estimated.
ID Analytics is a data collection firm that specializes in helping companies separate imposters from honest consumers. Its client list is long, and includes many major financial firms as well as the Social Security Administration. Over the past decade, it has amassed files on virtually every American who is active in the financial system. It now tracks 290 million Social Security numbers and nearly 300 million people.
Normally, the company receives credit applications from clients and checks them against its vast database, looking for signs of fraud. Criminals do crafty things like apply for a credit card at 10 different banks using SSNs that are only one digit away from each other. Or they use slightly different first names or street addresses in an attempt to evade a poor credit history or crime record. Because ID Analytics receives applications from multiple industries, it can spot these signs of fraud in ways that the individual companies cannot.
20 million use more than one SSN
One typical pattern: An imposter uses one name but alternate Social Security numbers in an attempt to circumvent the credit reporting system; ID Analytics is geared up to spot just that kind of evasion. It’s a tough job, because the incidence of multiple numbers connected to the same name is enormous: Dr. Stephen Coggeshall, chief technology officer at the firm, said 20 million Americans have multiple SSNs associated with their names, or 6 percent of the total population.
That doesn't mean there are 20 million identity thieves out there, even though it might feel like that. In many cases, typos are the culprit, Coggeshall said. Any time a consumer gives an SSN to a company, there's a chance it will be incorrectly entered into its system, and the error will then propagate throughout the credit system. Once that happens, SSN No. 2 is forever connected to the rightful holder of SSN No. 1. The incorrect SSN might belong to a real person, which can cause a headache for both people, or it might be "synthetic" -- an unassigned number that becomes a new entity in the credit system. No one knows how many of these synthetic “people” exist in our credit system, but there are likely millions of them.
It's relatively easy to spot innocent mistakes, Coggeshall said, because the number is used only once in connection with the name. It's easy to spot fraud, too -- any time a person shows up in the system using SSN No. 2, or No. 3, or No. 4, over and over again. Deliberate fraud is responsible for less than half of the 20 million names attached to multiple SSNs, but it is still a large percentage.
"A good fraction of that group, maybe 15 to 20 percent, of these mistakes are deliberate," Coggeshall said. "There are systematic variations, deliberate manipulations. ... I see many people who have a lot of Socials (SSNs)."
How many? ID Analytics says it has 3 million to 4 million names that have been used to commit identity fraud.
That’s an astonishing number, but it pales in comparison to the next figure.
Five million SSNs attached to three or more people
Recently, Coggeshall decided to reverse his research. Instead of looking for people connected to multiple SSNs, which is most useful for businesses, he looked at SSNs that are connected to multiple people, much more interesting to consumers. In other words, how many people in the U.S. are essentially sharing their identities with someone else?
The answer: 40 million. That means nearly one in 7 SSN holders in the U.S. have two or more names attached to their SSN records.”