Anatomy of a Social Security trace

Anatomy of an SSN trace

One of the first steps in creating our background reports is to run what’s known as a Social Security trace or an SSN trace. It’s a report that lists names (including aliases, nicknames, and other variations), dates of birth, and address history associated with the provided SSN.

These reports are commonly run when doing employment or due diligence background checks. Providers, such as Tracers or TLO, gather this information from credit headers, the basic information about the person to whom the credit report applies. Credit headers contain no credit info, just identifying info, which is quite valuable to investigators.

Unfortunately, SSN traces have their problems. Recently, we ran into an unusually large number of anomalies on a group of reports I had run for a client, including strange names and incorrect addresses. As a result, my client had lots of questions about the traces and what these issues meant to our investigation.

It was an interesting exercise. As an info pro and former librarian, I’ve spent a lot of time evaluating, comparing, making recommendations about, and teaching others to use a variety database products, and I love this stuff.  I learned a lot, too, including not all SSN traces are created equally.

In another post, I’ll summarize the differences I found in reports I pulled on two SSNs from three different vendors. For now, here are my answers to some of my client’s questions about SSN traces:

Why do you buy these reports?

At Phelps Research, we order SSN traces on all our subjects, because they reveal:

  • Where the subject has lived for the past 10 years or so, which tells us where to look for possible criminal records
  • Name variations for media and other research
  • Other names on the trace, which may indicate possible fraud
  • Date of birth, which helps us make sure we’re investigating the right person, among other uses

What are some of the problems with SSN traces?

There are several issues with the content, including:

  • The information is only as good as the information entered into the credit headers. They frequently include typos, and, when people jointly apply for credit, the other names and associated address histories may appear under one SSN on the trace.
  • The info is only as good as the info provided to the credit agencies. Some people deliberately falsify info when applying for credit. Confusing for us, but it can provide insights into previous fraudulent activity.

Where do you get these reports?

I use Tracers. There are literally hundreds of sources, though, including TLO, IRB, SkipMatch.

Who can access these databases?

These databases are fee-based, and only PIs and other “authorized” individuals can access them. The company checks that you’re a real business with a real need for the info. The vetting process generally includes verifying a business license, phone, insurance, and PI license. There’s also an office visit to make sure you are protecting this confidential info.

Where do these providers get their content?

The info on these SSN traces comes from credit headers. This is the part of a credit report that gives basic information about the person to whom the credit report applies. Headers include name, name variations , current and prior addresses, phone numbers, date of birth, and SSN (with issue date and place).

Should we be concerned about these other names on the report?

It depends. Given how error-prone SSN traces tend to be, I like to keep other names in context and treat them as I would any other sign of possible fraud. Are there any reasons to suspect fraud on the part of our subjects? Are there other red or yellow flags (major or minor indicators) in this person’s history? I check if these could be family members and run searches to identify any possible relationship. Sometimes the other name could be a sign that our subject is a victim of identity theft, in which case, the client should notify our subject.

In a future post, I’ll share the results of my comparison of SSN traces from three different vendors – Tracers, TLO, and SkipMax. And, yes, there is a difference!


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