What Is an SSN Trace and How Is One Conducted?

A social security number trace (or SSN trace) is an essential part of a thorough background screening. As you weigh a potential hire, you want to know that the information you have on your candidate is as complete—and as accurate—as possible. An SSN trace can help you gain a more complete picture before you move forward with the hiring process.

Because SSN traces provide a background check provider with more comprehensive information on a prospective employee’s previous addresses and past names, they’re frequently used as the first step in the background check process. The information provided by an SSN trace allows for more complete criminal record searches, helps to verify that the information provided by the candidate is accurate and complete, and ensures that all results of a background check correspond to the right person (and not, for example, another individual with the same name and birth date).

Here’s a quick guide to how SSN traces work as part of a comprehensive background check—and how they can help your company make more knowledgeable, confident hiring decisions.

What is an SSN trace?

Social security numbers are 9-digit numbers issued through the Social Security Administration to U.S. citizens and certain other residents. Although SSNs were initially designed to track and identify accounts within the Social Security program, they’ve since come to serve as a common means of identification in other contexts, such as the filing of federal income taxes.

Since each number is unique to a specific individual and issued through the federal government, SSNs are a particularly common and useful way to identify an individual.

When used as part of a background screening, an SSN trace is essentially a database search that tracks the history of a prospective employee’s social security number. Trace reports from completed SSN traces provide the date on which the number was assigned, the state in which it was originally issued, a list of any former names associated with the number, and a history of the current and former addresses used by the person associated with that SSN.

SSN traces also verify that the number provided by your applicant is valid and that it matches the name and date of birth they listed in their application.

How is an SSN trace conducted?

During an SSN trace, a background screening company will run a search of both private and public databases using the social security number and name provided by a job applicant. SSN traces draw on a number of different sources, but much of the information surfaced by an SSN trace comes from either credit bureaus or private, commercial databases.

Credit bureaus are particularly useful because they collect and compile information from credit card companies and banks. Any time an applicant applies for credit through these entities, information on the transaction will be collected by credit bureaus, along with what is known as “credit header information” (the part of the identifying information included in a credit report that isn’t restricted under the Fair Credit Reporting Act). Since credit header information includes the applicant’s current address, credit bureau records can be used to construct a more complete address history for your prospective hire.

SSN traces also draw on a number of other sources, including (but not limited to) commercial databases, change-of-address submissions through the U.S. postal service, online retail accounts, schools, and customer loyalty programs. All of this data is used to create the most complete possible picture of the applicant’s former addresses and any names they formerly used.

SSN traces and identity verification

While SSN traces are essential to any complete employee background check, there are also limits to what an SSN trace can accomplish on its own. For example, an SSN trace can verify that the number provided is a valid social security number and that the number matches the name and date of birth provided by your applicant—but it can’t verify that your applicant is the person the SSN belongs to.

If conflicting information is discovered during the trace (such as a conflict between the date of issuance for the SSN and the applicant’s date of birth), an experienced background screening company can pursue other methods of identity verification to ensure that the SSN provided does belong to your job applicant.

Uses of SSN traces

On their own, SSN traces are fairly limited in the amount and types of information they can provide. However, the information acquired through an SSN trace report is an essential first step in pursuing full and comprehensive pre-employment background screening.

Finding all previous names and addresses

Whether unintentionally or as a means of deception, it’s not uncommon for job applicants to provide an incomplete history of their former places of residence. In addition, many Americans change their name every year, and some applicants may fail to provide all of their previously used names.

Running an SSN trace helps to ensure that the background check process accounts for all counties where the applicant has previously lived and that subsequent searches account for all previous names the applicant may have used.

Criminal record searches

By providing a more complete picture of a prospective employee’s address history, as well as a list of all names they’ve used in the past, an SSN trace allows your background screening company to thoroughly search for past criminal convictions.

Knowing an applicant’s previous addresses allows for criminal background checks to be performed in every county the applicant has previously lived in. Likewise, having access to any other names the applicant has used allows for criminal record searches to catch results that may have been filed under a previous name.

Exposing potential fraud

While an SSN trace isn’t the same thing as identity verification, running an SSN trace can still expose certain kinds of fraudulent behavior on the part of an applicant. A completed trace report can expose the use of false social security numbers by flagging SSNs that are invalid (i.e, numbers that have never been issued), as well as SSNs that belonged to individuals who are deceased and SSNs that have been used by multiple individuals.

SSN traces can also expose conflicting information that an experienced background screening company can then investigate further through various methods of identity verification.

To learn more about SSN screenings, pre-employment background checks, and how they can assist you in making more informed hiring decisions, contact us.

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