The claim: A Social Security card can be used to pay off debt and make purchases
As online scams continue to thrive amid the pandemic, an old hoax about Social Security cards containing account and routing numbers recently resurfaced on social media.
A May 20 Instagram post with more than 2,000 likes claims a Social Security card is really a credit card linked to your Treasury account, which "permits you a Federal 'Exemption'" to discharge bills through credits issued on behalf of the government.
"In a sense Their credit is 'Digital Gold' that can be utilized to Fund your daily purchases, which can then be discharged through your Exemption Account (SSN) via 18 USC 8!" the post asserts.
Accompanying the text is a screengrab of a Google search result showing Cornell Law School's definition of the term "card issuer." Below the definition is an image of the front and back of a Social Security card with "ACCT. #" and "ROUTING #" displayed in a large red text.
Actor Wood Harris shared a similar version of the claim to Instagram on May 20 in the form of a TikTok video, in which a man says: "So I'm sure people have heard about the numbers on the back of their social security cards being tied to a federal reserve bank. This is absolutely true." The original TikTok video was shared on Feb. 28 and has more than 800,000 likes.
In a message to USA TODAY, the TikTok user claimed only "some" Social Security cards are tied to a Federal Reserve Bank and allow debit purchases. "The purpose was to show an account of the sort existed though not freely accessible," he said.
Wood and the Instagram user did not return requests for comment.
This is not the first time the claim has gone viral on social media.
And it's still not true.
Social Security number not linked to account
It is not possible to use a Social Security number to pay off any debt or bills, and attempting to do so could result in legal or financial penalties, according to the Federal Reserve System.
The Fed's site states: "A recent hoax circulating on the internet asserts that the Federal Reserve maintains accounts for individuals that are tied to the individual's Social Security number, and that individuals can access these accounts to pay bills and obtain money. These claims are false."
The Fed said individuals who attempt to make payments using false bank routing numbers could face fees from the company they were attempting to pay or have their actual bank accounts closed or suspended.
In July 2017 — when the claim first went viral — the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York issued statements saying the banks received numerous unauthorized transactions where consumers used Social Security numbers to pay bills.
The New York Fed reiterated that the claims are false in January, when it became aware of a similar scam involving videos claiming every U.S. citizen has a "secret" account established at a Federal Reserve bank.
"These claims are fraudulent and false. There are no such accounts — they do not exist now, nor have they ever existed. This is an internet hoax that has caused much financial pain to the public," the New York Fed wrote, adding, "Individuals do NOT have accounts at the Federal Reserve."
What the numbers signify
The numbers and letters on a Social Security card are used to track workers' earnings. The digits are not linked to a secret bank account, as the posts claim.
Social Security numbers were developed in 1936 to maintain "permanent and accurate earnings records for each person working in employment covered by the Social Security program." The purpose has evolved over time, as they are now used as a primary means of confirming identification in all manner of banking and employment systems.
The first three digits, the area number, indicates the state in which an individual applied for a card. The group number, the middle two digits, has no geographic or data significance and is used to organize the filing system. The last four digits represent a randomized numerical series from 0001 to 9999 within each group.
The numbers on the back of the card are also not linked to a secret private bank account with the Federal Reserve.
Per the Social Security Administration: "The back of the card contains information about the SSN and the card itself, including where to mail found cards, where and how to obtain information from SSA, a card stock sequence number, and the card's official form number."
Our rating: False
The claim that numbers on a Social Security card can be used as a routing and account number to make purchases is FALSE, based on our research. The Fed has debunked the claim on numerous occasions. It is not possible for an individual to have a bank account with the Fed. People who attempt to make payments using this method could have their payment rejected and also face fees and other penalties. The numbers on Social Security cards contain information about the card itself and are not linked to bank accounts.
Our fact-check sources:
The Federal Reserve System, April 15, Most Frequently Asked Questions
Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, July 12, 2017, Consumer Scam Alert: Do Not Use Federal Reserve Routing Account Numbers to Pay Bills; Could Face Late Fees, Other Charges
Federal Reserve Bank of New York, January 2021, Scams Involving the Federal Reserve Name
The New York Times, Aug. 25, 2017, Will Uncle Sam Pay Your Bills? Don't Fall for It
Social Security Bulletin, November 1982, Meaning of the Social Security Number
Social Security Administration, accessed May 23, Report to Congress on Options for Enhancing the Social Security Card
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Social Security numbers not linked to federal bank account