Back in 1938, the head of a wallet manufacturing company in Lockport, New York thought it’d be a great idea to show how well his new wallets could hold the then-new Social Security cards being issued to Americans. His sample card used his secretary’s real social security number (078-05-1120) and as you can guess, caused some trouble for her.
Hilda Schrader Whitcher was the unlucky secretary, who at first only had to deal with the light teasing of her co-workers for her newfound fame. But as people started to use it fraudulently, things started to become more serious. She even got a knock on the door from the FBI asking why her social security number was being used so often. She had to explain how her number had gotten released into the world through a wallet that any old person could pick up at Woolworths — a popular chain store of the time.
It’s estimated that over 40,000 people have used the number for fraud in some capacity. The social security system was still so new that in 1941, The New Yorker speculated that some people who purchased the wallets maybe believed that the social security number became theirs when they bought the wallet. The first social security cards had been issued just five years earlier.
At the infamous number’s peak use in 1943, the Social Security Administration estimates that 5,755 people were using Whitcher’s number. Ultimately, the SSA just voided the number and gave her a new one. There are other stories of real Social Security numbers finding their way into the world to be abused by large numbers of people, but Whitcher’s remains the most widely abused, probably because the entire program was so new and daunting for people of the time.
You can read more about this story from the Social Security Administration.
Image: Social Security cards in 1940 via AP
Factually is Gizmodo’s new blog of fun facts, interesting photos, and weird trivia. Join us on Twitter and Facebook.