Social Security Number Trace (Address History Searches)
July 6, 2007
First, let’s dispel a commonly held misconception: A Social Security Number Trace is not conducted through the Social Security Administration, nor is it a service that can definitively indicate if the subject of your search is “legal”.
The Social Security Number Trace should really be referred to as an “Address History Search”. This important screening tool provides a roadmap to a thorough and effective background check by revealing the addresses at which your applicant has been presumed to live and every name they have been presumed to use over at least the past seven to ten years. Completing this search gives you the greatest opportunity to commence a thorough, extensive criminal record search.
Social Security Number Traces are offered through a variety of sources. The most common sources are the credit bureaus. Companies such as Experian and TransUnion aggregate address and name history by identifying information reported by lending institutions such as banks, credit companies, utilities companies, cable operators, etc. If you have applied for any type of credit, chances are the credit bureaus will have a record of that. Of course when you apply for credit, you provide your name, address and social security number. This information is passed on to the credit bureaus and Voila! A credit event has been recorded. Another source for traces is through other commercially aggregated databases. Like all databases, some are better than others. Some will include aggregate information from credit bureaus as well as additional sources such as magazine subscription databases, customer affinity programs (e.g. frequent flier accounts), grocery accounts, etc.
We have conducted exhaustive testing of both credit bureau and aggregate database traces. While it would be irresponsible to suggest that these tests or any others draw a conclusive result, our preference is for Experian traces on the credit bureau side and a database called “PASST”.
Clients often ask, “What source is the best?” Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a best method of identifying address history. Information can vary from database to database, so you choose the one you are most comfortable with. One thing is certain, there is not a single source that can guarantee the information it provides is 100% accurate. For instance, let’s say that you lived with a friend for a period of time and never applied for credit while there. There’s nothing to tie you to that location. Therefore, a Social Security Number Trace will not reveal that address. Another issue occurs when tracing a number that belongs to an individual who has never applied for credit. Most commonly, this occurs with younger individuals. Most often, the number will not trace. The same logic applies to an individual who has recently moved to the United States. Even though they may be in this country lawfully, they have not established a history of credit. The lack of information on an address history search does not mean that the individual is illegal. It simply means that the credit bureau has not aggregated any data on the individual.
There are two definitive reasons as to why a Social Security Number Trace cannot be conducted through the Social Security Administration (SSA). First, the SSA does not maintain such address history information for commercial purposes. Secondly, only an employer can contact the SSA for information and only after the individual has become an employee. Contacting the SSA is something that an employer can do to determine Right to Work Eligibility Status, which applies to the I-9 process.
Since we are performing an in-depth dissection of the Social Security Number Trace, it is important to address some of the inherent “flaws” contained within. However also noteworthy is that none of these “flaws” or “anomalies” whether contemplated individually or together make a compelling argument for foregoing this search. Bear in mind that the data contained in a trace is done so by human beings over the course of time. The old saying of “garbage in, garbage out” applies. Since the information for each credit event must have been keyed in at some point by hand, it is inevitable that entry errors will occur, such as incorrect spelling of an individual’s name, the wrong address or a transposed social security number. This can and does happen and often, it is difficult to pinpoint when or where the error happened. The other commonly “flawed” information relates to the date of birth contained on the Social Security Number Trace. The best way to explain this anomaly is by posing a question. When was the last time you were asked to provide your birth date when you applied for credit? Even if you were asked, what is the likelihood that you were asked to prove it? This is the most commonly misreported information on a trace and we often tell clients to disregard the date provided. The SSN Trace is simply not a reliable resource to validate date of birth. Ultimately, the date of birth has no bearing on the information that is being used in the trace anyway.
Now that we have dealt with the “what” and “who” let’s consider the “why”. What can an employer do with this information? A trace can be conducted for only a few dollars. However, the low cost doesn’t diminish its importance. As mentioned earlier, the trace will provide a roadmap for conducting a thorough criminal record search. Failing to perform this search virtually guarantees that your goal of an effective and reliable background check will not be accomplished. Another useful aspect of the SSN Trace, when conducted through certain providers, is related to security. As an example, Experian offers a “Fraud Shield”. This feature cross references the social security number with more than 20 different databases to ensure that the number hasn’t been used in conjunction with reported identity theft, that the number does not belong to a deceased person, that the number was assigned during an appropriate birth date range, etc. Obviously, if an alert is offered in this regard, a background check should be taken with a grain of salt and more information must be sought from the applicant.
The address history and alias names identified by a SSN Trace represent an inexpensive and objective roadmap for conducting criminal history research. Without this objective resource, you must rely on your applicant to tell you where to search for criminal history, which can lead to obvious consequences. A dishonest applicant could easily conceal the fact that they moved 3 years ago to get away from a felony conviction. While the precise content of the SSN Trace cannot be considered 100% conclusive, no criminal background check should be considered complete without referencing this important tool.