Telecommunications company T-Mobile confirmed last month that hackers gained access to 54 million users’ personal data, including names, addresses, dates of birth and—perhaps worst of all—social security numbers. The latter are a big score for identity thieves because they can be used to unlock financial services, government benefits and private medical information.
This is only the latest major data breach to expose such identifying information on a massive scale, rendering hundreds of millions of Americans more vulnerable to identity theft. To stem the problem, some experts are calling for an end to social security numbers, suggesting we should replace them with some other—and less inherently vulnerable—way of proving one’s identity. But security experts think the government does not need to entirely do away with them. Instead the organizations that use social security numbers as proof of identity must start requiring more than a single form of ID.
The Federal Trade Commission recorded 1.4 million reports of identity theft in 2020, and that year such fraud cost victims an estimated $56 billion, according to financial consulting firm Javelin Strategy & Research. Identity thieves might use a variety of information to impersonate individuals, but one of the best keys for accessing money is the social security number, or SSN. This string of nine digits, which the federal government started issuing in 1936, was originally assigned to people simply to determine their social security benefits.