Scams ebb and flow on the internet. The idea that the numbers on the back of a Social Security card provide a link to a secret but accessible Federal Reserve account is one of the sillier myths that have circulated in the last few years. But those numbers do have a long and complicated history.
The Social Security Number Scam
Here's an internet scam that's been debunked for a few years but is still promoted through emails, blogs and online videos. It tells just the kind of tale an overspent consumer would love to believe, of a secret government bank account in her name that she can access electronically using her Social Security number (SSN) plus a Federal Reserve Bank routing number found on the back of the card.
The problems with this story are obvious – individuals do not have bank accounts or banking relationships with the Federal Reserve, for one – only banks do. And the government does not have private bank accounts linked to each SSN.
Still, there have been numbers on Social Security cards since they were first issued in 1936. Do they mean anything?
Numbers on the Backs of Social Security Cards
When the Social Security program was introduced, the agency designed and printed cards. The very first version had the date of issue typed on the face of the card (month and year) as well as the individual's Social Security account number. No numbers were on the back.
Many versions of the card have been printed since that time. A replacement version, different from the original card, was first offered in 1938-1940 and had "Form OA-702 DUP" printed on the back to identify the format used. When this version was revised, the form number on the back changed slightly to “Form OA-702.1,” later changed to “Form OA-702.”
The fourth version of the replacement SSN card added the revision date to the back of the card. Format and revision date numbers were printed on all subsequent versions of the replacement card until the SSA decided to make replacement cards identical to the original cards.
Numbers on the Fronts of Social Security Cards
More Americans can recite their SSN than their passport number or their car license plate. Those nine digits have a story too, albeit nothing connecting them to bank accounts.
From 1936 through 2011, the Social Security Administration followed a plan in assigning SSNs. It worked roughly like this:
- The first three numbers corresponded to the location of the Social Security office that issued the number, with lower numbers in the Northeast and higher numbers to the South and West. These numbers topped out at 586.
- The SSA used the middle two numbers as the group number in order to help organize a filing system. For unknown reasons, these were not issued consecutively. The SSA started with odd numbers from 01 to 09, then used even numbers from 10 to 98, finally filling in with the even numbers from 02 to 08 and the odd numbers from 11 to 99.
- The last four digits of an SSN are serial numbers issued by group, running consecutively from 0001 to 9999. The lower the number, the earlier the individual with that SSN entered the group.
In 2011, the plan for assigning SSNs was entirely abandoned. All numbers since then have been assigned completely at random.
Routing Number Information
If it's any consolation, every individual with a checking account is able to easily find the routing number (called routing transit number or RTN) of a financial institution. This comes in handy when someone wants to wire money from or to an account.
At the bottom of most checks are three different sets of numbers. The RTN is a nine-digit number on the bottom left corner of the face of a check, usually the first number. The second number is the checking account number, while the third identifies the check itself.
- Social Security: History of the Social Security Card
- Social Security: Where Can I Find My Account Information?
- Federal Trade Commission: No Secret Bank Accounts to Pay Your Bills
- New York Times: Will Uncle Sam Pay Your Bills? Don’t Fall for It
- Investopedia: The Purpose of Having a Social Security Number
- Motley Fool: What Does Your Social Security Number Mean?
- Prime Pay: SSN Facts for Employers
- Social Security: The SSN Numbering Scheme