If you use a fake Social Security number, or SSN, and get caught, the penalties upon conviction depend on the charges against you, the benefits you sought to obtain by using the number, and your immigration status. Conflicting court decisions complicate the issue.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
The Social Security Administration notes that using a fake Social Security number could result in prosecution for criminal fraud if you obtained the number using false information, or if you used a fake number to get government benefits. The law is murky on what your penalties are in other circumstances.
The Penalties According to the Social Security Administration
Section 141 of the Social Security Handbook makes two statements that address the acts the agency will prosecute:
- You may be prosecuted for criminal fraud for knowingly furnishing false information as to your identity in connection with the establishment and maintenance of Social Security records.
- You may also be prosecuted for criminal fraud for using a Social Security number obtained on the basis of false information or for falsely representing a number to be your Social Security number if you've done this either to obtain or increase a Social Security payment or to obtain a financial benefit from any other federal program.
Section 141 also describes a wide range of penalties upon conviction of these crimes, which include fines ranging from $500 to $10,000, imprisonment or both. Terms of imprisonment range from one to 15 years.
Specific Crimes Covered Under the Relevant Laws
The language of the Social Security Handbook makes clear that certain acts are punishable offenses. For example, if you create a counterfeit Social Security card with a name other than your own, you've furnished false information about your identity. Likewise, if you've used a Social Security number belonging to someone else in order to obtain or increase a Social Security payment or any other federal benefit, you've clearly committed one or more acts of financial fraud. Depending upon the specific circumstances, you can be charged with other crimes as well. For example, if you use a fake number to get a credit card because your own credit is poor, you've also committed fraud.
Loopholes and Limitations
Some instances of faking a Social Security number, however, are not clearly covered by any relevant federal law. One of these unsettled legal areas is: What is considered an "identity"? Your name, clearly – but what about a fake SSN? Is that number a part of your identity or only an administrative convenience?
Another important limitation in federal law has to do with your motivation for creating a fake number. You may be an undocumented immigrant who has used an SSN that's not your own to obtain work, but you've never claimed any federal benefits from that use. On the contrary, your employer has contributed a portion of your earnings to the federal government for which you will never receive a benefit. In that case, it's not clear what crime you've committed or whether you've committed any crime at all.
The Law Is Unsettled as to Fake SSNs for Work
The law regarding the use of a fake SSN to obtain work isn't completely settled. Some courts have ruled that it is not a crime, and that in the absence of other offenses, the government may not deport an undocumented worker for using a false SSN. Other courts have issued different conclusions on the matter. In May 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a federal identity theft law frequently used to prosecute and deport undocumented workers cannot be used for that purpose if the worker used the SSN only to get a job.
Despite that ruling, several state courts continue to rule that using a fake Social Security number to get a job is a violation of state laws. Some of these rulings were overturned, but others were not. In 2010, the Colorado Supreme Court, for example, ruled against conviction, but later that year an Iowa Appellate Court upheld a similar case. In 2016, the U.S. Seventh Circuit further complicated the issue by concluding that, yes, using a fake SSN is a crime, but not a crime of moral turpitude. This ruling may have a significant effect on deportations of undocumented immigrants because committing a crime of moral turpitude is a legal element justifying deportation.
- Social Security Online: Penalty for Fraud
- The Washington Post: Using a False Social Security Number Is a Crime — but Is It a Crime ‘of Moral Turpitude’?
- NBC: Courts: Using Another’s SSN Not a Crime
- NPR: Appeals Court Says Using Fake Social Security Number Doesn't Have to Mean Deportation
- Social Security Administration: Handbook Section 143: Fraud In Connection With Benefit Claims And Earnings Records
- The New York Times: Justices Limit Use of Identity Theft Law in Immigration Cases