Repetitive Numbers

Social Security has been part of the American economic and political landscape since its inception in August of 1935. As part of the New Deal, then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law the Social Security Act, which aimed at alleviating poverty among senior citizens, as at the time, roughly 50 percent were living below the poverty line. Social Security created a tax on payrolls, the revenue from which would be used to pay monthly benefits to seniors, as well as a lump sum payment upon death.

In order to create this system, the federal government created Social Security Numbers (SSN) — unique identifiers which allowed the system to track all the collections and payments. Unfortunately, as we know today, identity theft is rampant, in part because the SSN system does little to protect our numbers from becoming available to seemingly anyone. Take the case of Hilda Schrader Whitcher, whose SSN was used by 5,755 people — in the year 1943, alone.

But Whitcher was not the victim of identity theft thousands of times over.  Rather, her number was given out in wallets.

In 1938, just a few years after the Social Security Act became law, a wallet manufacturer decided to include sample cards in their leather products, encouraging purchasers to use their new wallets to carry around their Social Security cards. (As it turns out, this was bad advice; the Social Security Administration advises that you not carry around anything with your SSN on it.) The cards, as seen below, were labeled with the word “specimen” as to not confuse the wallet’s new owner into thinking that the card provided contained a true SSN.  Whitcher was the secretary of the executive who came up with the fake card idea, and her number — 078-05-1120 — emblazoned the sample card.

The wallet was a retail success, finding distribution across the country when Woolworth, at the time perhaps the biggest single retail chain in the nation, decided to carry it.  Unfortunately, as Whitcher would later find out, thousands of people began using her number as their own — sparking all sorts of inconveniences for her, including a visit from the FBI.  In total, roughly 40,000 people have claimed SSN 078-05-1120 as their own since the fake cards were first printed. This misuse went one for decades, too. As recently as 1977 — nearly forty years after it was first placed on sample cards — Whitcher’s number was still being used by about a dozen people.

While Whitcher and Woolworth learned the “do not make documents with fake SSNs — even as samples” rule the hard way, another organization did not heed their lesson.  In 1962, this organization printed a pamphlet aimed at answering common questions about how the Social Security system worked, and on the front of the pamphlet was the front of a card with a sample number — 219-09-9999. That number was, of course, erroneously adopted by confused pensioners and employees alike. But the embarrassing part?

The organization which published the pamphlet was the Social Security Administration itself.


Bonus fact: The first person to receive Social Security benefits was a lady by the name of Ida May Fuller, who retired in 1939 at the age of 65, and received her first check — for $22.54 — on  January 31, 1940.  Fuller had worked for three years under the Social Security system, so she had made some contributions to the overall fund, but only $24.75 worth.  She came out ahead by the time she cashed her second benefits check — the second of very, very many.  Fuller lived to be 100, passing away on January 31, 1975, thirty five years to the day she received that $22.54.  Her total lifetime Social Security benefits?  $22,888.92.

From the Archives: During one Powerball drawing in 2005, 110 people from across the country each won the $200,000 prize for correctly guessing five of the six numbers. These 110 people each had the same six numbers selected. But this was not a case of lottery fraud; rather, it was a case of them each receiving the same “lucky numbers” in their fortune cookies.

Related: “Stopping Identity Theft: 10 Easy Steps to Security” by Scott Mitic. 28 reviews, five stars on average, and not a single one below four. Available on Kindle.

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