Since they were first created in 1936, more than 450 million social security numbers (SSNs) have been issued to US citizens and permanent residents. SSNs are primarily used for identification and taxpaying services. Without a SSN, you can’t obtain credit, receive government services, or buy a home. The SSN is essential to everyday life. However, what many may not know is that the SSN is also a historical record that aids employers during the hiring process. It is a useful tool that delivers essential information about candidates during a background check. 

What Is a SSN Trace?

A SSN trace is a database search that provides the year, state of issuance, and address and name history of a particular social security number. It is a critical component of a background check and helps to uncover many more background details than a search by one name or one address. The SSN trace is such a valuable component of background checks that, according to a Professional Background Screening Association (PBSA) survey, 80 percent of organizations that conduct background screening also include a SSN trace for all candidates.

When assessing the value a SSN trace provides, it is important to note what the SSN trace is not. Sometimes a SSN trace can be confused as a method of identity verification. However, although a SSN trace can identify aliases, addresses, and the validity of a specific SSN, it doesn’t verify that a SSN belongs to the person who provided it. For this reason, SSN trace is a powerful background screening tool that is best used as part of a broader background screening program.

5 Reasons to Include a SSN Trace in the Background Screening Process

A SSN trace is much more than a database search. In many ways, it is a gateway to additional information—information that provides more depth to an individual’s background check. Here are five key reasons to include the SSN trace when conducting background checks.

1. It Can Determine Applicable Criminal Record Searches

Information returned from a SSN trace can be used to determine applicable criminal record searches. It is helpful to think of the SSN trace as a guide or an arrow; it points to many other possible sources of information about a candidate. Whereas a single criminal records search will deliver results for a given name, a SSN trace amplifies those criminal search results by providing all the names and addresses for a specific SSN. That additional information can be used to conduct a more in-depth search of criminal record databases, possibly yielding a more complete search result.

2. It Helps Analysts Garner More Complete Background Investigations

A SSN trace helps screening analysts compile a more complete background investigation. When analysts have more information about other name changes, and multiple addresses for a candidate, they can work with the hiring organization to determine what additional database or other searches may need to be performed. For example, if a candidate’s SSN trace reveals a SSN issuance date that conflicts with the date of birth provided by the candidate, a screening analyst can take action to verify information provided by the candidate and explore other possible causes for the discrepancy.

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3. It Can Reveal Previous Name Changes, Expanding Criminal History Searches 

A SSN trace identifies individuals who have used different names in the past, an occurrence that isn’t all that uncommon. According to one estimate, up to 50,000 people change their name each year, for a host of reasons, including to correct a birth certificate error, as a result of adoption, or to anglicize a name after moving to the US from a different country. A SSN trace can reveal maiden names, and it can uncover individuals who changed their name to conceal a previous identity and individuals who use multiple aliases. Understanding the various names for an individual can expand criminal history searches and aid verifications for employment, education, and professional licenses.

4. It Can Generate a More Complete Address History and Expose Gaps

Candidates completing background check authorizations may intentionally or unintentionally neglect to include all historical addresses. A SSN trace fills in the blanks by generating a list of a candidate’s current and past addresses. In some cases, that list may be more complete than what was provided by the candidate. Having a more complete address history for a candidate allows background screeners to determine if it makes sense to conduct a criminal records search for additional locations beyond the candidate’s current county of residence. A SSN trace can also reveal gaps in a candidate’s address history, which may require additional research.

5. It Can Uncover Fraudulent and Illegal Activity

Conducting a SSN trace can uncover fraudulent and illegal acts. It can reveal individuals who may be using someone else’s SSN to hide criminal activity, a revoked or suspended license, or other sanctions barring them from working in your industry. That kind of fraud may be more common than you think. Some cybersecurity experts believe that most SSNs have been exposed on the dark web or compromised in some way. Conducting a SSN trace is a good way to uncover instances of inappropriate use of a SSN, such as:

  • A fake SSN that has never been issued
  • A SSN that belongs to a deceased individual
  • A SSN that has been used by multiple people

How to Get the Most out of a SSN Trace Report

Running a SSN trace isn’t just a matter of plugging a social security number into a database. In reality, it’s what you do with the information that makes for a more thorough background check. For example, experienced background screening analysts are able to examine SSN trace reports and determine the appropriate follow-up, helping to deliver information that improves the quality of the overall background check. Working with a reputable background screening partner can bring together technology and expert human analysis so that you can retrieve, decipher, and understand the information coming from a SSN trace report. Expert screening analysts can:

  • Determine what other data sources must be checked to verify data from a SSN trace report, including where it’s necessary to do a deeper dive, either in the form of additional research or additional court searches. 
  • Decipher misleading information that can appear on a SSN trace report, such as misspellings, transposed street address numbers, or the names of family members (for example, Michael Scott Jr. and Michael Scott III).
  • Identify appropriate next steps when a SSN trace produces few or no results. Analysts can request clarifying information from the candidate, and they can also help you determine if there are valid reasons for limited information, such as a newly issued SSN or suspected identity theft.

A SSN trace is one of many useful background screening services that can help you make well-informed hiring decisions. It provides a historical roadmap of candidates’ names and addresses and includes information that a candidate may have neglected to disclose. At face value, a SSN trace report could appear to be little more than a list of names and addresses, but it is so much more. You can realize the full value of the SSN trace report when you work with an experienced background screening partner and its team of expert screening analysts who use judgment and effort to develop a more complete picture of a candidate. With a team that digs deeper and asks the important questions, the SSN trace report can be an invaluable part of your overall background screening program.


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