Statement by Gilbert Fisher,
Assistant Deputy Commissioner for Programs, Policy, Evaluations and Communications,
before the Senate Judiciary Committee

May 10, 1995

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

I am pleased to be here to discuss the documentation that the Social Security Administration (SSA) uses to establish identity for Social Security program purposes. As the subcommittee has requested, I will discuss the situations that require that SSA establish a person's identity and the process we follow to ensure that people conducting business with us are whom they say they are.

Establishing Identity

The primary reason for which SSA must establish an individual's identity is to issue a new or replacement Social Security card. The Social Security card is the only document that SSA issues. Although the card is not intended to be used for the purpose of establishing an individual's identity, the law requires that an individual applying for a Social Security Number (SSN) provide evidence of age, citizenship or alien status, and identity. The SSN is the means by which we maintain separate records for millions of workers and beneficiaries.

The procedures for issuing SSNs and Social Security cards have changed significantly since the beginning of the program. At the time the Social Security card was devised in the 1930's, its only purpose was to provide a record of the number that had been issued to the individual so that the employer could accurately report earnings for the individual. That is still the primary purpose for which SSA issues the card. It was never intended to serve as a personal identifier--that is, to establish that the person presenting it is actually the person whose name and SSN appear on the card. Although we have made it counterfeit- resistant, it does not contain information that can be compared to the presenter to establish identity.

Over time, the use of the SSN and Social Security card has greatly expanded, and the card is now used for purposes other than Social Security earnings record maintenance and payment of benefits. Society's increasing use of computerized data has led to suggestions to use the SSN and the card as a personal identifier. The card itself, however, is still basically a paper record with a name and number on it although the current card has significant integrity features.

Prior to 1971, all SSNs were issued based solely on information alleged by an individual. Because of the expanding use of the card for other purposes, there was concern about the integrity of the card. Beginning in 1971, certain categories of applicants were required to provide documentary evidence of age, identity, and alien status. This made it more difficult to obtain a card on the basis of a false identity. However, the card was still simply a reminder of the number assigned to the individual named on the card.

Several years later, the integrity of the SSN process was further improved. Since May 15, 1978, all applicants have been required to provide documentary evidence of age, identity, and U.S. citizenship or alien status. Generally, to obtain an original Social Security card, an applicant must submit at least two forms of acceptable evidence, such as a birth certificate and driver's license. Aliens must submit appropriate Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) documents to establish lawful status. Replacement card applicants must submit, at a minimum, evidence of identity.

SSA has begun verifying alien registration documents with INS electronically through INS' Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlement (SAVE) project. This system, now used in about 160 Social Security field offices, allows us to verify INS documents by keying in the alien registration number. This reduces the need for the field office to make judgments as to the validity of an individual's documents. In fiscal year 1994, SSA employees made over 363,000 inquiries through the SAVE system. In about 17 percent, or almost 60,000, of those cases, INS could not verify the authenticity of the document.

Applicants for original Social Security cards who are age 18 or over are required to have a personal interview. During the interview the applicant is asked for prior names and surnames and the reasons for never before needing an SSN. For those who allege having been born in the U.S., SSA obtains additional verification prior to the issuance of an original SSN because most people born in the U.S. have been assigned an SSN by the time they reach age 18. SSA verifies the existence of a birth certificate at the State Bureau of Vital Statistics for all U. S. born applicants for original cards who are at least 18, and initiates a search for a death certificate when there is reason to believe the applicant may be assuming a false identity. We also require these applicants to submit evidence to support explanations about why they never needed an SSN previously.

Enumeration At Birth Initiative

The Enumeration at Birth (EAB) program was established in 1989 as another means of improving the SSN process. It is a valuable tool in preventing fraudulent acquisition of an SSN. This program allows parents in the 49 participating St ates to indicat e on the birth certificate information form whether they want an SSN issued to their newborn child. States provide SSA with birth record information about newborns whose parents want a Social Security card for their child, and SSA then assigns an SSN and issues a card. Approximately one-half of the original Social Security cards issued in fiscal year 1994 were processed through EAB.

This process greatly reduces the potential for someone to use another person's birth certificate to obtain a Social Security card. For example, individuals who present the birth certificate of a child enumerated under EAB would not be issued an SSN, since our records would indicate that an SSN had already been issued to the child named on the birth certificate. As EAB expands, there will be fewer children without SSNs whose birth certificates could be used to obtain SSNs for another person.

Federal income tax law requires that persons claimed as dependents for Federal tax deduction purposes have an SSN . This has created a strong incentive for individuals to obtain an SSN for their children.

Reporting Postentitlement Events

We must also verify an individual's identity when he or she contacts us in person or by telephone to report an event that may affect payment of benefits. For example, a person may need to discuss the status of a claim for benefits, report a change in circumstances that affects a benefit, or report an address change. Although authorized disclosures of information are usually in writing, we disclose information over the telephone if measures are taken to ensure that the requestor is authorized to obtain the information.

Since we encourage i ndividuals to handle their business with us by telephone whenever practicable, we have worked especially hard to strengthen our procedures for verifying a caller's identity. Before disclosing any information, we must be certain of the identity of the caller and that disclosure of the requested information is permitted if the caller is someone other than the person who is the subject of the record. We are keenly aware that the potential to disclose information, including acknowledgement that a person is a Social Security beneficiary, may exist at any time during a call that involves an individual's Social Security record.

We interview callers to determine who they are, e. g. the individual of record, parent of a minor child, authorized representative, and to obtain identifying information, which is then checked against information in SSA's online databases. If the caller's identity cannot be verified, we advise the caller that we can send the requested information to the address in our records of the subject of the information or the subject's guardian or representative, or that the caller can submit the request in writing, whichever is appropriate.

SSA's Role in SSN and Benefit Verification

It is important to keep in mind that the process of confirming a person's identity and the limitations of the Social Security card for that purpose are quite separate from the issue of SSN verification. By SSN verification, we mean the process by which SSA determines whether a name and SSN match SSA's records, that is, whether SSA issued a given SSN to a given person. This process cannot determine whether the person presenting the name and SSN is, in fact, the person to whom the SSN was issued.

SSA has always had the capability to verify SSNs, which is an important function in ensuring accurate wage reporting and, ultimately, accurate benefit payments. Employers may immediately verify SSNs for payroll purposes by calling our 800-number or local office. Relatively few employers call, however, because they tend not to question the name and SSN provided by an employee.

With the expansion of the SSN's use over the years, especially as a result of widespread dependence on computers, SSA began to experience more and more requests for SSN verification for purposes other than the Social Security program. Many of these requests were from government agencies for the purpose of ensuring the accuracy of information collected for other Federal and State benefit programs, and automated data exchange systems were developed to comply with these requests.

On the other hand, SSA does not verify SSNs for the private sector for purposes other than employer wage reporting. The law and our disclosure policy are designed to protect individual privacy--a fundamental and widespread concern--and the confidentiality of the SSN because of the potential for its use as a means of unauthorized access to personal records.

The system that was developed to verify SSNs and benefit eligibility for States is available to employers to verify SSNs. The Enumeration Verification System (EVS) verifies SSNs based on data such as name and date of birth.

Although EVS is used primarily by States, employers may also use EVS to verify SSNs for wage reporting. However, because EVS consists of a high-volume process, under which the requests are transmitted to SSA by mail on magnetic tape and the results returned to the requestors in about 4 weeks, this system does not allow for immediate SSN verification.

Cross Referencing Birth and Death Records

The effectiveness of any verification system is heavily dependent not only on the authenticity of the evidentiary documents which are submitted, but also the evidence on which the documents are based. One obvious method of fraud to which a verification system may be susceptible is the use of a deceased person's records, including his or her birth certificate, to establish a false identity.

One way of minimizing this type of fraud is to coordinate birth and death records so that a copy of a birth certificate is not issued for someone who has died. Since birth and death records are maintained by States, this would require a system whereby each State is provided with death information from all other States so that birth records could be appropriately annotated. The most efficient process for doing so would be through a centralized source of death information.

SSA currently maintains death records (referred to as the Death Master File (DMF)) based on reports of deaths from various sources. The file contains an individual's Social Security number, name, dates of birth and death, State or country of residence, and a code indicating the source of the death report. The most common sources of death reports to SSA are family members, funeral directors, postal authorities, financial institutions, and State vital statistics agencies.

Although it would be possible for SSA to function as a central source of death information, and to share that information with States so that they could annotate their birth records, it would be just as easy for States to form a consortium for that purpose. SSA would need additional resources to perform those tasks. The effectiveness of such a system would depend, of course, on the full participation of all 50 States, each of whom would have to agree to use the data provided and put in place safeguards which would control the reissuance of a dead person's birth certificate.

Although feasible, a number of issues would have to be addressed in order for SSA to function as a clearinghouse for death information:

  • Funding for SSA's administrative expenses would have to come from a source other than the Social Security trust funds, since this function would not be program-related.
  • SSA's authority to provide death information obtained from a State source to other States is restricted by Federal law and the contracts with the States by which SSA obtains the information.
  • Although the DMF is for the most part accurate, many death reports on the DMF are not verified. SSA does not verify reports of nonbeneficiary deaths. Reports of beneficiary deaths received from family members, funeral directors, or postal authorities, which account for 95 percent of our death records, are not verified because they are considered to be both timely and accurate. General Accounting Office studies show that reports from family members and funeral homes have a less than 1 percent error rate and are usually received in SSA within 7 days of the death.

However, beneficiary death reports from SSA's matching operation, such as State vital statistics bureaus, the Health Care Financing Administration, and the Department of Veterans Affairs, are verified before we take an action which would adversely affect an individual. These reports are considered to be third party reports and are considered to be less accurate since there is a margin for error when data changes hands and is retransmitted. Matched sources account for approximately 5 percent of our death records.

  • Although cross-referencing birth and death records would deter individuals from using deceased persons' birth certificates, this solution is largely prospective and longterm. Cross-referencing birth and death records retrospectively would be virtually impossible, since most birth and death certificates issued before the mid-1980s do not carry the SSN. The DMF has a death record for only about 52 million of the approximately 100 million SSNs issued to persons who are now deceased. Thus, providing SSA's death records to States would not preclude someone from fraudulently obtaining a birth certificate for one of the nearly 50 million deceased persons whose death has not been reported to SSA.


SSA's evidentiary policy represents a balancing of the need to verify allegations with the desire to minimize the burden placed on the person who must provide documentary evidence to support the allegation . Although we continually look for ways to identify and discourage fraudulent documents, we believe that our current policies strike an appropriate balance that maintains the integrity of our programs, while providing efficient public service.

I will be happy to answer any questions you may have.