JohnKwan/ShutterstockThink your Social Security number is hard to protect in the digital age? It’s tricky enough remembering how to keep your phone safe from hackers — so be thankful it’s not literally being given away with wallets.
In 1936, the first Social Security cards were issued to thousands of Americans through local post offices. In 1938, the VP of a wallet-manufacturing company in New York thought it’d be a great idea to show how well his new wallets could hold these cards. So he included in every wallet a sample card imprinted with the number 078-05-1120—his secretary Hilda Schrader Whitcher’s actual Social Security number. Oops.
Even though the sample was half the size of a real card and emblazoned with the word specimen across its face, shoppers started adopting Whitcher’s number as their own. At first, Whitcher had to deal with only her coworkers’ teasing about this newfound fame. But as more people used her number for fraud, the FBI came knocking. You can imagine her dismay; your social security number reveals a lot about you, and now Whitcher had to explain that her identity was literally being sold with wallets that anybody could buy at Woolworth.
The New Yorker speculated in 1941 that some people who’d purchased the wallets may have believed Whitcher’s SSN was truly their own, as the system was still so new. Others must have known better: At the ubiquitous number’s peak in 1943, the Social Security Administration estimates, 5,755 people were using it.
Eventually, the number was voided, and Whitcher was given a fresh one. It’s thought that more than 40,000 people have fraudulently used the SSN “issued by Woolworth” since its debut, some as recently as 1977. Fortunately, your own SSN is probably a lot safer than Whitcher’s, but thieves are a lot savvier these days too. Here are 26 secrets identity thieves definitely don’t want you to know.