Identity theft was virtually unknown when the Social Security Administration began issuing SSN’s in 1936. It got off to a running start, however, in 1938, when wallet manufacturer E. H. Ferree accidentally sold a real social security number along with its wallets in department stores across the country. The idea was to show how a Social Security card would fit into its wallets. A sample card, used for display purposes, was inserted in each wallet. Company Vice President and Treasurer Douglas Patterson thought it would be a clever idea to use the actual SSN of his secretary, Mrs. Hilda Schrader Whitcher.
The card in the wallet sold by Woolworth stores and other department stores all over the country was half the size of a real card, printed in red, and the word “specimen” covered Mrs. Whitcher’s face. However—as possibly an innocuous mistake at first (the SSN system was still very new)—shoppers began using Whitcher’s number as their own. In the peak year of 1943, 5,755 people were using Hilda’s number. The SSA tried to eliminate the problem and curb abuse by voiding the number and giving Mrs. Whitcher a new number, but the problem continued to persist for decades. In all, over 40,000 reported Mrs. Whitcher’s Social Security number as their own, some as recently as 1977.