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What Is Randomization?

A new method of issuing Social Security numbers helps guard against scammers

Q. I've heard that Social Security is doing something called "randomization." What's that?

A. It's a program begun in June 2011 to update methods by which Social Security numbers are assigned. The new system retains the familiar nine-digit format but eliminates selection processes that date to the 1930s.

See also: Online virus scam freezes computers.

For instance, a number's first three digits will no longer indicate the applicant's geographical region. Numbers are now being issued at random — hence "randomization."

In 1936, when Social Security was just getting under way, it began assigning numbers to workers in order to keep track of their lifetime earnings. Benefits — especially retirement benefits — are frequently tied to these pay histories.

The original methods reflected the bookkeeping needs of the filing cabinet era; the new system adapts to the computer age. It's also intended to make life harder for identity thieves — eliminating that geographical correlation of the first three digits makes potential victims' numbers more difficult to guess.

Under randomization there are about 420 million numbers available for assignment. But if you've already got a number, don't expect to receive a new one. The modernized process applies only to people getting numbers for the first time.

Still, under limited circumstances, you can request a new number. Those include cases in which:

  • Sequential numbers assigned to members of your family are causing confusion.
  • Another person is using your number.
  • As a victim of identity theft, you continue to be disadvantaged by using the original number.

Stan Hinden, a former columnist for the Washington Post, wrote How to Retire Happy: The 12 Most Important Decisions You Must Make Before You Retire. Have a question? Check out the AARP Social Security Question and Answer Tool.

Remember to go to the AARP home page every day for tips on keeping healthy and sharp, and great deals.

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