If you have Special Security number 078-05-1120 and your name isn't Hilda Witcher, or VOID, you have a problem.
That number, which many people think is their very own, was assigned to Mrs. Witcher nearly 40 years ago. But thousands of people have used it, or tried to. More than 40,000 items have come into the Social Security Administration she got it in 1938.
The hassle started back when Social Security was new. A wallet manufacturer wanted to show prospective buyers how their new card would fit into his product. So, for display and demonstration purposes, the New York wallet-maker put in a sample Social Security card with the number of Hilda Witcher, his secretary. His didn't know what he was starting.
The sample card used (with number 078-05-1120) was clearly marked "specimen." The idea was that people would remove it and put their own cards in its place. Not everybody got the idea.
Many people apparently thought that when they purchased the wallet, they were entitled to use 078-05-1120 to help build a pension fund for their old age. They were wrong.
Thousands of wallet buyers told their employers their SS identification number was 078-05-1120. Bosses made payments to that account number. Fathers handed the number down to sons. Mothers passed it on to daughters. You wouldn't believe the mess it created.
Well, that was nearly four decades ago. Social Security finally gave up - Mrs. Witcher was unhappy as well - assigned her a new number, and wrote VOID across 078-05-1120. It didn't help much.
More than 202 million SS identification numbers have been issued since Mrs. Witcher got hers. Currently at least 150,000,000 people have Social Security cards. Nobody has 078-05-1120 legally, but some people still use it.
Despite heroic efforts by the Social Security Administration and its computers to bury Mrs. Witcher's number, people keep trying to use it. Things are getting better. In 1976, around 40 people thought they had it. This year only 12 cases of mistaken 078-05-1120 identification have been reported. The government hopes in another 10 or 20 years, the whole thing will be just a horrible memory.
When I called Social Security to confirm the story of Hilda Witcher's number, a spokesman said, rather sadly I thought, that it was all too true.
"You aren't going to use that number in the paper are you?" he asked.
"Sure, why not?" I replied.
"Because it will start the whole thing all over again," says he. So, if you have 078-05-1120, don't use it. If you want a Social Security number don't ask for that one. If you get 078-05-1120 in a wallet, throw away the number. Don't even let your kids see it. That number, once the property of Hilda Witcher, now belongs to VOID. You can't have it.