Prepared Testimony Of Glenna Donnelly Assistant Deputy Commissioner For Disability And Income Security Programs
Social Security Administration
Before The House Committee On The Judiciary
Subcommittee On Immigration And Claims
Subject Counterfeiting And Misuse Of the Social Security Card And state And Local Documents
July 22, 1999

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

Thank you for inviting me to testify about the documentation the Social Security Administration (SSA) uses to establish identity for Social Security program purposes. In my testimony today I will also discuss the development of the Social Security card, use of the Social Security card for employment eligibility verification purposes, and the report to Congress on options to enhance the security of the card.

History of the Social Security Card

At the time the Social Security card was initially developed in the 1930's, its only purpose was to provide a record of the Social Security number (SSN) that had been assigned to the individual so that an employer could accurately report Social Security earnings for the individual and SSA could keep track of those earnings. That is still the primary purpose for which SSA issues the card. It was never intended to serve as a personal identification document--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 the card counterfeit-resistant, it does not contain information that allows it to be used as proof of identity.

Over time, however, the use of the SSN and the Social Security card has greatly expanded, and the SSN and card are now used for purposes other than Social Security earnings record maintenance. Society's increasing use of computerized data has led to the use of the SSN as a personal identifier in computer records.

Prior to November 1971, all SSNs were assigned and cards issued based solely on information alleged by an individual. Because of the expanding use of the card for other purposes, there was concern about its integrity. Beginning November 1971, persons aged 55 and over applying for an SSN for the first time were required to submit evidence of identity.

Beginning in April 1974, all noncitizens applying for original SSN cards were required to provide documentary evidence of age, identity, and noncitizen status, U.S. born applicants age 18 and older applying for original SSN cards were required to submit evidence of age, identity, and U.S. citizenship. Naturalized citizens would be required to provide evidence of age, identity and citizenship status. This made it more difficult to obtain a card on the basis of a false identity. In July 1974, because of our concern that individuals who had been assigned SSNs for purposes other than work might use the card to obtain unauthorized employment, we began to annotate our records to reflect the fact that a noncitizen had been assigned an SSN for nonwork purposes.

Several years later, the integrity of the SSN process was further improved. In May 1978, we began requiring all SSN applicants to provide documentary evidence of age, identity, and U.S. citizenship or noncitizen status. Generally, to obtain an original SSN and Social Security card, an applicant now must submit at least two forms of acceptable evidence. For U.S. born applicants, this is generally a birth certificate and driver's license. Noncitizens must also submit appropriate Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) documents to establish lawful noncitizen status. Applicants for replacement Social Security cards must submit evidence of identity, and if foreign-born, evidence of current citizenship or immigration status. It must be kept in mind that the Social Security card was never meant to be an identification document.

In evaluating documents submitted with applications for SSN cards, SSA applies the same strict standards used to evaluate documents submitted with claims for title II and title XVI benefits.

Applicants for an original SSN card who are age 18 or over are also required to have an in person interview specifically to determine whether they previously were assigned SSNs. 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 being born in the United States, SSA performs additional verification prior to the issuance of an original SSN, because most people born in the United States should have been assigned an SSN by the time they have reached age 18. For these applicants, SSA also verifies the existence of a birth certificate at the State Bureau of Vital Statistics, and initiates a search for a death certificate when there is reason to believe the applicant may be assuming a false identity. SSA also requires documentation supporting the reason(s) the applicant never had an SSN.

Breeder Documents

We must remember that, even with these improvements to the SSN card issuance process, the Social Security card is still just a record of the SSN assigned to the individual and not an identity document for Social Security purposes. Further, SSA records reflect citizenship and work authorization status only as of the time the SSN is assigned or the card is replaced. SSA updates this information only if the person applies for a replacement card.

Furthermore, the identity data contained in Social Security records are only as reliable as the evidence on which the data are based. The documents that a card applicant must present to establish age, identity, and citizenship, usually a birth certificate and immigration documents-are relatively easy to alter, counterfeit, or obtain fraudulently. These documents are commonly referred to as "breeder documents" because they can be used to obtain other documents used to establish identity: for example, a birth certificate can be used to obtain a driver's license, which, in turn, can be used to establish identity. SSA's efforts are focused on detecting these counterfeit and fraudulent documents--to the extent we prevent the issuance of an SSN card based on one of these documents, we help break the chain of fraudulently obtained documents.

Enumeration Process Improvements

To combat identity theft and other SSN fraud, SSA has tightened its SSN policies and instituted many different systems checks. We have progressed from an easily duplicated paper card issued from local offices to a centrally controlled and issued counterfeit resistant card. We have taken advantage of new fraud detection devices and tools and broadened the training of our employees for detecting and preventing SSN fraud. With a vigilant workforce, these measures have been highly successful; in fact, it is our front line employees who typically uncover fraud. More recently, however, schemes involving career criminals, sometimes using technologically advanced forgeries, have been uncovered. The Agency's ultimate goal is to prevent fraud.

Primary to that prevention is eliminating the opportunity for fraud by ending SSA's dependence on documents presented directly to us by the public as evidence of age and citizenship/work authorization- documents which might be forged or misused by the dishonest in a fraudulent attempt to acquire an SSN.

The efforts to reach this goal target a wide range of initiatives aggressively being pursued with the INS and the State Bureaus of Vital Statistics (BVS)-the sources of documents the dishonest forge or misuse to obtain SSNs. Chief among these are our projects to enumerate newborns (right at birth in the hospital) and newly-arrived noncitizens (as they enter the country) when their identity is certain and simultaneous to the birth and work authorization certification.

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 and a Social Security card. This program is available in all States as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and allows parents to indicate on the birth certificate information form whether they want an SSN assigned 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. Almost 90 percent of the original Social Security cards issued in calendar year 1998 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, an individual who presents the birth certificate of a child enumerated under EAB would not be assigned a new SSN, since our records would screen against the date of birth and parents names shown and indicate that an SSN had already been assigned to the child named on the birth certificate. As more children are enumerated through the EAB program, there will be fewer persons without SSNs whose birth certificates could be used to obtain an SSN for someone else.

Federal income tax law requires that all persons claimed as dependents for Federal tax deduction purposes have a taxpayer identification number (now generally the SSN). This has created a strong incentive for individuals to obtain SSNs for their children at birth, thus reducing the potential for someone else's birth certificate to be used to fraudulently obtain an SSN.

Electronic Verification of Birth Certificates

We are currently working with the State Bureaus of Vital Statistics through the National Association of Public Health Statistics and Information Systems (NAPHSIS) to allow our field offices online access to State vital record data. This capability will serve as an electronic link between individual States and SSA. This system is a key step in making verification a reality.

In Tennessee, all SSA offices already access that State's vital record data online. Using the model in place in Tennessee, we are also now piloting online access to State vital records in Kentucky, Texas, Florida, and California.

Initiatives with INS and the Department of State

In addition, SSA is moving ahead with plans to have INS and the Department of State help us with enumeration. We paved the way for this initiative by publishing a regulation in October 1998 that authorized us to enter into agreements with INS and the State Department to collect enumeration data. At this point, we are in the process of working out the final details of those agreements.

We are confident that enumeration accuracy will greatly improve when this multi-phased process is fully implemented. Because this more fraud-resistant process will also be much more convenient and result in more timely receipt of an SSN, we believe that most noncitizens eligible to take advantage of the service will do so. Through INS participation in enumeration, work-authorized noncitizens will find their way cleared for early employment, an important benefit. While we expect the number of noncitizens applying for SSNs in our field offices to be minimal once this process is implemented, we will continue our efforts to guard against the submission of fraudulent documents in these cases.

We believe it is important to acknowledge that most noncitizens who request SSNs have a legitimate right to and need for SSNs so they can work. To help them and still maintain integrity in our processes, we and INS have long worked together to improve the verification process. We introduced access to an automated system--called Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) in a few offices several years ago, and by January 1997, we had SAVE in every SSA office. We verify every INS document presented with an SSN application through the SAVE program, except for documents from noncitizens who have not been in the country long enough for information to be available through SAVE. Currently, for these newly arrived noncitizens, our offices follow existing procedures for evaluating INS documents and seek manual verification from INS for any that appear suspect.

Finally, while we are finalizing plans for INS participation in enumeration, we are also exploring ways to improve and shorten the verification process through automated access to more INS data. We will continue to .jointly consider options for improving the way we verify noncitizen status and employment authorization.

Social Security Cards for Work Authorization

I would now like to discuss the role of the Social Security card as evidence of work authorization, which is a separate issue from personal identification. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) makes it illegal for an employer to knowingly hire anyone not legally permitted to work in the United States; that is, noncitizens not authorized to work by INS. Under IRCA, all employers are required to verify the identity and employment eligibility of all employees hired after November, 1986, regardless of citizenship or national origin. Any of a variety of documents specified in the law and in INS regulations can be used for this verification. Some of these documents--such as a United States Passport--establish both employment eligibility and identity. Others--including a Social Security card without a restrictive nonwork legend--can be used to establish employment eligibility, but must be accompanied by an identification document, such as a State driver's license. Employers do not have the authority to require employees to show their Social Security card to establish employment eligibility. In fact, for I-9 purposes, requiring a new employee to present their card is a violation of immigration law.

Originally, SSA issued the same type of Social Security card to everyone, whether or not they were authorized to work. Beginning in May 1982, a legend, "NOT VALID FOR EMPLOYMENT," was printed on the Social Security cards of noncitizens not authorized to work. This was due to the increasing need for persons to have SSNs for nonwork purposes and INS concern that such persons could use their SSNs for work and the employer could not determine, based on the card, if the individual was authorized to work. Currently, there are few valid reasons to be issued a nonwork Social Security number card, although one such reason is to receive local, State, or Federal benefits.

With this nonwork legend appearing on the card, employers were able, for the first time, to determine whether the individual to whom the card was issued was authorized to work at the time the card was issued. Of course, they still could not rely solely on the card to establish that the person presenting it was the person to whom the SSN was assigned. Beginning in September 1992, SSA began issuing SSN cards with the legend "VALID FOR WORK ONLY WITH INS AUTHORIZATION" to noncitizens lawfully in the United States with temporary authority to work. In these cases, employers must look at the noncitizen's INS document to determine if the noncitizen has current authorization to work in the United States.

Counterfeit-Resistant Social Security Cards

In the beginning of the Social Security program, due to the then limited purpose of the Social Security card, no special efforts were made to prevent Social Security cards from being counterfeited. However, as counterfeiting became a concern, actions were taken to address this problem. For example, legislation enacted in 1983 required that Social Security cards be made of banknote paper and--to the maximum extent practicable--be resistant to counterfeiting. SSA worked with the Bureau of Engraving, the Secret Service, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to design a card that met these requirements. All Social Security cards issued since October 1983, incorporate a number of security features intended to make the card counterfeit-resistant and tamper-proof. It is now difficult to produce a high quality counterfeit of these cards.

Some types of humanly readable security features that make the card more counterfeit-resistant are already incorporated in the current Social Security card. However, while some of these security features have been made public, others, for obvious reasons, have not. Thus, it would be difficult to train employers to identify counterfeit Social Security cards without disclosing the very security features designed to make the card counterfeit-resistant. Under current law, employers are required to make a good faith effort to ensure that documents are genuine. They are not required to be document experts. For the same reason that most of us will unwittingly accept a counterfeit $20 bill--lack of experience, expertise, and equipment in identifying a counterfeit bill--employers may unwittingly accept counterfeit Social Security cards.

As new versions of Social Security cards have been developed since the first cards were issued in 1936, new and replacement cards have been issued prospectively because of the prohibitive cost of replacing all cards still in use. Thus, there are now 49 versions of the Social Security card in use, all of which are still valid.

Prototype SSN Card Study/Report

As you know, both welfare reform and immigration reform legislation required us to develop a prototype of a new card and to study and report on different methods of improving the Social Security card application process. In September 1997 SSA published our findings in the Report to Congress: Options for Enhancing the Social Security Card.

We developed seven card options in response to the legislative requirements. These included:
  • Plastic cards
  • Cards with pictures
  • Cards with secure barcode stripes
  • Cards with an optical memory stripe
  • Magnetic stripe cards
  • Magnetic stripe/picture cards
  • Microprocessor/magnetic stripe/picture cards

We found that issuing any of the enhanced cards would be feasible. If mass reissuance of cards to all SSN holders were required, it would be far more costly than a prospective issuance. We also studied the feasibility of charging a user fee to offset costs to issue enhanced cards. SSA's Inspector General studied Canada's Social Insurance Number fee charging operation and concluded that to pay for the related administrative expenses SSA should charge a fee of $13 for each card (in 1997 dollars).

The cost of issuing an enhanced card to almost 300 million card holders would be staggering. Depending on the option selected, costs range from $3.8 billion to $9.2 billion, including costs for contacting all number holders, processing costs (excluding staff overhead) to issue cards,cost of the card itself, and the cost of special equipment needed to work with each card option and capture information to be included on the card. In addition, because SSA would have to establish a process to collect the user fee, at an additional cost of $1.2 billion, the total cost of issuing replacement cards ranges from $5.1 billion to $10.5 billion. And, of course, there would be concerns about privacy and the potential for the card to be used as a national identification card, an issue that must be considered carefully.


In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, SSA has in place a comprehensive system to check and verify documents necessary for an individual to get an SSN or file for Social Security and Supplemental Security Income benefits. The current SSN card has a number of features that make it counterfeit resistant and which make the card suitable for the purposes of reporting and tracking earnings. The card is as counterfeit and tamper resistant as all but the newest bills of U.S. currency. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.