The United States has used the Social Security Number (SSN) to uniquely identify its citizens since 1936.
The most misused Social Security Number of all time began to occur in 1938 when wallet manufacturer EH Ferree started promoting its products by inserting a fake SSN card into the wallet. The braniacs in the company thought it would be cute to use the SSN of one of their secretaries on this fake card!
Her name was Hilda Whitcher, and to protect her, the wallet maker at least tried to ensure it was obviously a fake card by altering the card’s color, shrinking it in size by half and embossing the word ‘Specimen’ across its face. Yeah, great job at protection, right?
So the wallet goes on the shelves in Woolworth department stores across the country where many happy customers thought these cards were intended for use by the purchaser and adopted the SSN as their own. In 1943 its usage reached its peak when 5,755 people were using Hilda’s SSN.
To help stave off its use the government issued her a new SSN, voided her old number and started publicizing that it was incorrect to use it. However, as the years wound on, upwards of 40,000 people were still claiming her number as their own and in fact as late as 1972 (34 years later!) 12 people were found to still be using this number ‘issued by Woolworth’!
Although Hilda Whitcher found it to mostly be a nuisance, the FBI once showed up at her door inquiring about the widespread use of her SSN.
Refer to the Social Security History site for more interesting tidbits on this program.