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How 40,000 people used a Lockport woman's Social Security number


That's the most used – or misused – Social Security number in history, and it belonged to a woman from Lockport.

The federal government originally issued that number to Hilda Schrader Whitcher in the 1930s. But over the next four decades more than 40,000 people mistakenly claimed it for themselves.

How and why that happened is an intriguing story told by various media outlets over the years, most recently last week on National Public Radio's "Planet Money" podcast.

The Social Security Administration even devotes a page on its website to Whitcher's number.

It all began in 1938, when Whitcher's employer, the E.H. Ferree Co., a maker of leather goods based in Lockport, wanted to boost sales of its wallets. The company thought it would help to show customers how they could put their Social Security card in the wallet.

Douglas Patterson, an E.H. Ferree vice president and treasurer, decided to use the actual Social Security number of Whitcher, one of the company's leather cutters, on the display cards inserted into every wallet. He did it without her knowledge or permission.

"It seems like they should have thought this through better," said Ann Marie Linnabery, assistant director of the Niagara County Historical Society, which has written about Whitcher's number.

Now, Social Security, with its system of assigned numbers and cards, was relatively new at this point. The federal government had issued the first cards in 1936.

Maybe it's not surprising that a number of people buying an E.H. Ferree wallet from Woolworth's and other department stores mistakenly thought the card inserted inside was their official Social Security card, or they needed a number quickly to get a job.

That's despite the fact the E.H. Ferree cards were a different color than an official Social Security card, were smaller than an official card, had "Specimen" written across them – and came randomly in a wallet anyone could purchase.

The E.H. Ferree Co. wallet card that included Whitcher's actual Social Security number. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In a 1983 interview with The Buffalo News, Whitcher recalled arriving at work one day to find co-workers singing, "I found a million dollar baby." Whitcher said she completed the refrain of the song popular at the time – "In a five and ten cent store" – but didn't understand what was going on.

It was only later that she learned her Social Security number was famous.

"I didn't know what to say. I was dumbfounded," Whitcher told The News.

In 1943, when the level of confusion was at its peak, 5,755 people were simultaneously using Whitcher's number.

The Social Security Administration publicized the problem in an attempt to get the public to stop using the erroneous cards. The agency also voided the number and issued Whitcher a new card.

As late as 1977, the government found 12 people still using Whitcher's original number.

Whitcher said in later interviews that the card mistake largely was an annoyance. Her husband, Hiram, told The News that Federal Bureau of Investigation agents even questioned her once about the widespread use of her Social Security number.

She said she couldn't believe how the problem snowballed among wallet shoppers.

"They started using the number," Whitcher told The News. "They thought it was their own. I can't understand how people can be so stupid. I can't understand that."

She said she didn't know how much money was mistakenly deposited into her Social Security account over the years before the agency straightened it out.

"I'd probably be a millionaire today if I had all the money," Whitcher said in 1983, four years before her death at the age of 88.

The E.H. Ferree company was at 57-61 Richmond Ave. in Lockport from 1914 until 1955. The building, renamed 57 Canal St., is now owned by Iskalo Development.

Linnabery, from the Niagara County Historical Society, said the misuse of Whitcher's Social Security number resonates today.

"We talk about identity theft now," she said. "That was basically what happened to her back in that time, although people weren't thinking about identity theft in those days."

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