Imagine having your Social Security Number (SSN) misused by 5,755 other people at one time. The income tax headaches could be enormous. Getting a job might be impossible. These are, in fact, the real numbers from a case involving a woman whose SSN was printed and distributed all across the U.S.
The year was 1938. Identity theft was an unknown concept. The woman, Hilda Schrader Whitcher, worked as a secretary for wallet maker E. H. Ferree in Lockport, New York.
SSNs were in their infancy at the time—the first SS numbers ever issued were released in November 1936—and the wallet manufacturer wanted to show buyers that their new SSN card would fit snuggly inside a wallet. Whitcher’s boss decided to print up her number on a rectangle marked “Specimen” to illustrate the point. Oops!
Ferree sold those wallets at Woolworth department stores and other shops around the country. Even though the sample card was much smaller than an actual Social Security card, people grabbed it. By 1943, the U.S. government reported that 5,755 individuals were using this single SSN. The Social Security Administration reported that over 40,000 individuals used this same number over the years, leading the government to eventually cancel it. Whitcher received a new one—a very rare occurrence that is now nearly impossible to duplicate. As late as 1977, statistics indicated that a dozen individuals were still using Whitcher’s original nine digits.
Not everyone using the secretary’s SSN was intent on fraud. Many simply believed the number was theirs because it came with the wallet. Even the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) contacted Whitcher to question her about the abuse. She blamed it on simple ignorance.
“(Others) started using the number. They thought it was their own,” Whitcher is reported to have said.
Check Your Wallet
Whitcher’s SSN remained in circulation for decades, which raises the question, “What’s in your wallet?” Today, data security experts recommend keeping as little personal data as possible in your pocket or purse. A Social Security card does not belong in your wallet unless there’s an immediate need to use it. Completing the paperwork to begin a new job could be one valid reason, but there are very few times when carrying the card with you is the smart choice.