Are Social Security numbers recycled?

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April 22 2003 5:25 PM

What Happens to Your Social Security Number When You Die?

The very-much-alive Jim Pierce was declared dead when a Social Security Administration clerk mistakenly typed the Vermont retiree's Social Security number into a database of the departed. Are Social Security numbers ever reused once the bearer dies, and how are they generated in the first place?

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The SSA is adamant that numbers are never recycled and likely won't be for the foreseeable future. Given the nine-digit format, there are a hair under 1 billion possible permutations, taking into account that numbers like 000-00-0000 and other oddities aren't distributed. (An elaborate mathematical guesstimate here quotes the precise figure as 988,911,099.) So far, the SSA has doled out roughly 400 million numbers. Population researchers calculate that roughly 300 million people will require new Social Security numbers by the year 2050—about 230 million native births plus 68 million immigrants, give or take 50 million all told. Barring unforeseen circumstances, such as a meteor strike or cloning boom, the current enumeration system should last nearly another century.

The numbers of the deceased are made publicly available via the Social Security Death Index. Several genealogy services provide free, searchable versions of the SDDI to aid researchers who are tracing their family roots.

Hospitals make it easy for new parents to obtain Social Security numbers for their infants at birth, often integrating the application forms into the standard procedural paperwork. Naturalized citizens and legal aliens can apply directly to the SSA once they are in the United States or as part of the visa application process before they arrive. Paranoid anti-government types aren't technically required to have a Social Security number, but life in the U.S. is virtually impossible without one. The IRS requires all employed citizens over 18 to have a number, and a Social Security number is essential to opening up a bank account, paying taxes, and obtaining health insurance. Once you have a number, you can't opt out of the program. On extremely rare occasions you can change your number, but only if you can prove that keeping your current digits is a threat your well-being—say, if you're being pursued by a relentless stalker.

Conspiracy theories abound as to the significance of the numbers, but the true explanation is mundane. The first three digits are assigned by geographical region. Originally, this was done by state, with the lowest numbers on the Eastern seaboard and the highest along the Pacific; they are now assigned according to ZIP code. The middle two digits are referred to as the "group number," which simply breaks down each geographic unit into smaller, random subsets—that is, your neighbor's baby may share the same first three digits with your toddler, but the kids' group numbers will likely be different. The last four digits, the "serial number," is assigned in chronological order within each area and group number as the applications are processed. Serial number "0000" is never used.

Contrary to the rumors favored by the black-helicopter set, the numbers have nothing to do with racial categorizations or U.N. relocation plans.

Explainer thanks John Haaga of the Population Research Bureau.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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