What’s “Ask Lisa”? It’s one of a series of regular columns in the TRU Report that seeks to keep our Clients better informed about our services and the approaches we take to bring best practices to bear in everything we do. In future issues of the TRU Report, we’ll “Ask” other TruView subject matter experts to engage us in hot topics. This month, TruView’s Managing Director Lisa Worgull sheds light on the Social Security Number Trace. 

Tru Report: Lisa, what is a Social Security Number Trace?

Lisa: A Social Security Number—or SSN—Trace is a database report that provides addresses—and possibly aliases and other names—linked to a specific Social Security Number. They are the first step in a thorough pre-employment background investigation because they help provide a “roadmap” for a comprehensive, accurate background check.

 TR: Do you conduct an SSN Trace through a federal government database?

Lisa: No. That’s a common misconception. The SSN Trace does not confirm or verify that the SSN is issued to an individual. Data is compiled from a variety of resources: credit bureaus, third-party resources, applicant change-of-address submissions, magazine subscriptions, customer loyalty programs (such as frequent flier and grocery accounts), telephone directories, online contest entries, and other sources.

TR: What do the database reports reveal?

Lisa: Results may provide additional names, variations, or aliases; current and previous addresses the subject is presumed to have used over the past seven to 10 years; date or year of birth; possible family associations; phone numbers; and, if the number was issued before June 2011, the state and time frame in which the number was issued.

TR: What happened in June 2011?

Lisa: The Social Security Administration changed the way SSNs are issued to protect SSN integrity and extend the sustainability of the nine-digit numbering system. It’s called “randomization.” The new method eliminates the significance of the first five digits, which can be used to ascertain where and the time frame in which the SSN was issued.

TR: So you have all this data—name variations, addresses, birth date, phone numbers, and so forth. What do you do with it?

Lisa: You use it to compare and confirm information provided by the applicant, such as home addresses. Once you have a Social Security Number and home addresses, you can do three important things: First, you can identify additional information not disclosed by the individual or client. Second, you can identify in what jurisdictions to perform criminal and civil court searches for any action naming the applicant, potentially uncovering issues relevant to the hiring decision. And third, the information can help you rule out other information you may uncover further in the investigation.

TR: Is an SSN Trace always used in employment screens?

Lisa: In thorough employment investigations, a Social Security Number will be supplied, by way of applicant release, and a Trace is performed. But that’s only a starting point. The SSN Trace should be combined with additional search processes to ascertain critical information about an applicant and to ensure that the potential employer complies with U.S. employment law.

 TR: How can you be sure that a Social Security Number legitimately belongs to an applicant?

Lisa: Unfortunately, there is a robust trade in false identifies. Individuals who don’t have the right to work in the U.S. or have unfavorable backgrounds can and do obtain SSNs that belong to other people. An SSN Trace alone is usually insufficient to reveal if the SSN belongs to the applicant, unless it returns either no information or information that is completely different from other background information provided by the applicant. Either result is an immediate red flag, requiring additional communication with the applicant.

However, an investigator can verify that an individual SSN match through what is called a Consent-Based SSN Verification, or CBSV. The CBSV compares the SSN in the Social Security Administration’s records to information provided by the applicant—such as date of birth, current address, name, and so forth—to see if the information matches. A signed form of consent from the applicant is required and can be requested at any time during the hiring process—though it does add cost to the screen. But a CBSV has its limitations, too. It only confirms that the applicant-provided information is consistent with what the government has on file for the SSN. It does not confirm employment eligibility.

 TR: And how do you confirm employment eligibility?

Lisa: By “employment eligibility,” we mean the legal right to work in the United States, per the U.S. law. Only an employer or agent of the employer can verify if someone has the right to work, and this is done via the federal government’s I-9 process and, for many employers, through the E-Verify system.

TR: I’m getting that the SSN Trace is an important first step in a thorough background screen but it has its inherent flaws, too. Is that right?

Lisa: Yes. It’s important—but not a perfect system. The SSN database reports are based on credit headers, so if a person never applied for credit or did not use a particular address for credit purposes, then they may not show up in the trace. The, too, data contained in a trace is entered by human beings over the course of time, and mistakes are made; the saying of “garbage in, garbage out” applies. Moreover, we come across incorrect or incomplete dates of birth, as many credit applications do not require it, and when they do, often it isn’t verified, or only the year of birth is requested. But a good research analyst or investigator knows this. And they know the best practice for overcoming these flaws is to use multiple sources to complete the “story.”