How popular is your Social Security Number?

In the best of all possible worlds, your Social Security Number (SSN) would be known and used only by you for legitimate purposes. SSNs were first issued in 1936 as the federal government’s way to track people’s earnings and tax them for unemployment and future retirement benefits. Since then, government agencies and businesses have come to depend on your nine-digit number SSN for a broad array of non-Social Security uses, such as medical records, employee files, university ID cards, credit bureau reports, health insurance accounts and banking accounts.

But other people would like to know your SSN. Today more than 500,000 to 700,000 people are affected each year by identity theft and a stolen SSN is the key to the crime, according to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

One number identity thieves have learned to avoid is the most popular and misused SSN of all time: 078-05-0012. It was originally assigned to Hilda Whitcher, secretary to the manufacturer of a popular wallet sold in department stores throughout the United States. In 1938, the wallet company decided to launch a new advertising campaign by showing how its product conveniently stored and displayed one’s Social Security Card. The ad featured a representation of Whitcher’s card. Not long afterwards, more than 40,000 people started using Whitcher’s SSN as their own. Consequently, Whitcher changed her SSN. However, as late as 1977, a dozen people were confirmed as using this invalidated number.