The Social Security Number, A Biography: Part 3


The Social Security Office in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

We’ve already talked about the birth of the Social Security Number, its form and function, and early assignments. Now, we’ll look at how the SSN went from simply being a way for the Social Security Administration to correctly determine people's Social Security entitlement and benefit levels to being an indispensable part of someone’s identity used for dealing with the government and private businesses—and the problems that come with that.

The Expanding Use of the SSN

Social Security Numbers were initially cooked up by the SSA as unique identifiers for people so their Social Security accounts could be tracked and maintained. Within a few years, others began to catch on to the idea that a unique number that hundreds of thousands of people already had would be an efficient and easy way to identify people and keep records.

In the early 1940s, an executive order made other federal agencies start using the SSN for identifying people in new federal record systems. Over the next few decades, legislation required the number as part of people’s records with the IRS, state departments of transportation, federal loan programs and other instances. The feds also chose not to put too many restrictions on use of the numbers in the private sector, and its convenience led to its use as an identifier by banks and credit unions, utility companies, landlords, colleges, universities and medical offices.

With its widespread use and its connection to so many facets of a person’s life, the SSN has become a favorite tool of identity thieves. To combat this, government agencies use an SSA verification system to ensure that a given pairing of a name and SSN matches the SSA’s master records. Enrolled private businesses can use the system, too, if they can provide proof of recent consent from the number’s owner for the release of the information.

The Most Frequently Stolen Identity

Hilda Schrader Whitcher. Photo Courtesy of SSA.Gov

The Federal Trade Commision estimates some 9 million Americans get their identities stolen each year, but one person appears to have had the dubious honor of having her SSN swiped more than anyone else. Her name was Hilda Schrader Whitcher, and she was the secretary of a wallet manufacturer who thought it would be funny to put her actual SSN on the sample card fitted into his product’s card holder. The cards, printed in red at about half the size of a real card and stamped with “SPECIMEN” in big letters, were obviously not the real deal, but many people who bought one of the wallets began using the card and the number as their own. By the time the wallets had been on the market for a while, the SSA estimates that more than 40,000 people were using the number. While the FBI called on Hilda to ask her about all the uses of her SSN, the SSA voided the number and started a PR campaign to point out that people couldn’t just use the number that came with their wallet. They also gave Hilda a new number, which she kept to herself.

The trend of using the SSN as an unofficial “national ID number” has been shifting in recent years. In 2008, the federal government rescinded the old executive order requiring federal agencies to use the number as an identifier, and the SSA, FTC and President's Task Force on Identity Theft have all encouraged the government and the private sector to scale back on its use.