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What are the numbers on the back of my Social Security card?

The internet is alive with theories about Social Security Numbers and their meaning or use despite the government’s attempts to debunk the myths.

The internet is alive with theories about Social Security Numbers and their meaning or use despite the government’s attempts to debunk the myths.
Hyungwon KangREUTERS

The Social Security Act was passed in 1935 long before computers. So that the civil servants tasked with maintaining the files could do so in an orderly way, a system was devised to more easily catalogue Social Security Numbers and allocate numbers around the nation.

However, just like with the symbols on a dollar bill the ether world is rife with theories about what the numbers on a Social Security card signify. Some think they are for nefarious purposes, while others could get you into legal trouble.

Myths surrounding Social Security Numbers

As the saying goes “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.” This is true for inventions about Social Security Numbers and the numbers on the back of Social Security cards. Despite the best of efforts to inform the public of the benign and humdrum nature of both, rumors and myths continue to circulate about what they are really for.

Myth: Your Social Security Number is a secret bank account

This myth could get you into hot water and even though the Federal Reserve put out a warning years ago, it reemerged with the covid-19 pandemic. The story goes that people have a private “secret” account at the Federal Reserve and that they can pay bills or get money out of the account using the routing number of the Fed and their Social Security Number.

First off, a private individual cannot have an account at the Federal Reserve. The Fed is the central bank for the United States and handles transactions between institutions not individuals. The routing numbers the institution uses are for sorting payments and are not like the ones a retail bank uses. Trying to pay your bills this way could result in late fee penalties and potential criminal charges according to the Fed.

Social Security Numbers used for racial discrimination

The claim that businesses, universities and banks can tell an applicant’s race based on their Social Security Number goes back to at least to 1999. looked into this at the time but the myth, like the former, made a comeback during the pandemic on one of the favorite platforms for spreading false information, Facebook. The Social Security Administration, aware of the myth, published why they think the idea came about.

Posts on Facebook claimed, as over 20 years ago, that the fifth digit of your Social Security number indicated your racial identity. According to the myth, if the fifth digit of your Social Security Number is an odd number then you’re white and if it is even you’re non-white. The Social Security Administration ventures that this is because the fifth digit is in the series of numbers referred to as the “group number”. The agency points out that when applying for a Social Security Number it is voluntary to mark on the form what ethnicity you relate to.

How are Social Security Numbers assigned?

The Social Security Administration as of 2008 had issued over 450 million Social Security Numbers. Since then, the US population has grown by nearly ten percent. In 2011 the agency changed the way it issued new numbers using a “randomization” process. This was to “help protect the integrity” of the numbers and “extend the longevity of the nine-digit SSN nationwide.”

Prior to the change, the nine number scheme was divided into three number categories; area, group and serial.

The first three digits represent a geographical region of where the application for the card was made.

The second set of two digits “has no special geographic or data significance” according to the agency. The “group numbers” were not assigned in consecutive order and are “used to break the numbers into blocks of convenient size” for processing and control the quantity of numbers assigned to states and regions. The administration began with odd numbers and then used even numbers.

The last four digits run consecutively from 0001 to 9999 within each group assigned, so those who enter a new group first have a lower number.

What are the numbers on the back of a Social Security card?

The numbers on the reverse of a Social Security card also have their own conspiracy theories attached to them. Kevin Drum at Mother Jones did some digging after reading an article by his colleague David Corn who was told the numbers indicate the bank that owns you. According to the story, when you are born you are put up as “collateral for the banks.”

Drum provides some blogposts from those searching for similar information and led down the conspiracy path. However, his research uncovered that once again, the numbers have no sinister use but are simply a tool for managing Social Security numbers. A federal worker told him the numbers are for inventory control so that every blank card printed can be accounted for.

Social Security cards are printed much like dollar bills, even on banknote paper when possible, and have a serial number along with other security features to prevent them from being counterfeited. The number on the back can help the agency verify if a particular card is legitimate or false when checked against the Social Security Administration’s database then correlated with the social security number and name on the card.


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