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Social Security: 9 Seriously Fun Facts (Really!)

By Dayana Yochim - Updated Sep 24, 2018 at 2:02PM

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Forget all that boring (a.k.a. useful) stuff at SSA.gov. We unearthed a goldmine of fascinating facts about your all-important nine-digit number.

Want to know who voluntarily spends hours of their day scouring the Social Security Administration's website? People who get paid to. That includes me and the four remaining members of the SSA.gov tech support team who didn't get jobs at LinkedIn or Google during the 2013 budget sequestration.

The reason I have 23 tabs in my Web browser open to the recesses of SSA.gov right now is that I drew the long straw. Yes, I landed the cushy assignment of searching for "fun facts about Social Security," while my pals and fellow Motley Fool Answers podcasters Robert Brokamp and Alison Southwick are stuck researching the boring stuff for our next episode -- subjects like when you should start taking Social Security benefits, the risks to future benefits, and Chris Christie's latest proposal for Social Security reform. I know: Snooze-o-rama, right?

A social security card lying among assorted bills

Who says Social Security can't be a fun topic? Image source: Getty Images.

So much to see and do at SSA.gov!
Someday you, too, may need to devote hours of your day (likely unpaid -- sorry) clicking around the Social Security Administration's website to do some not-so-fun things like:

You might find the aforementioned pages helpful. I can't confirm their utility, as I only skimmed them for "fun facts" before immediately moving on.

I can tell you that "Where can I get a copy of the Death Master File?" does not contain even one Call of Duty cheat code. But the Life Expectancy Calculator is a hit at birthday parties and family reunions.

For the really riveting stuff, however, you have to dig a bit deeper.

Fun facts that'll make you the life of the party
As a public service (and a way to bring meaning to those hours I could have spent watching videos of baby animals learning to walk), I present nine things you might not have known about Social Security, directly from the source. Share them proudly, and you'll be the life of every cocktail party!

1. Social Security numbers were introduced in 1936to keep track of hobos
At least that's what it sounds like to me. Apparently, Uncle Sam needed a system to keep track of the earnings histories of U.S. workers (many of whom enjoyed taking free train rides to less destitute locales featured in Ken Burns documentaries) so that they could benefit from President Franklin D. Roosevelt's newly launched Social Security program.

2. If you were born before 2011, your Social Security number was generated using a system that takes 12,052 words to explain
But I'll do it in 131:

If you're over the age of four and have a Social Security number, here's how your nine-digit number came to be:

  • The first three numbers reflect the zip code of the Social Security office that issued it, most likely near where you were born if your parents got you straight into the system after your birth. Like zip codes, the numbers increase from east to west across the U.S.
  • The next two numbers are your "group number" (between 01 and 99 and subject to some complex and not-so-fun rules I won't go into here). They were assigned in the order in which applicants applied for a number in a particular area.
  • The last four numbers -- the serial number -- were doled out as each Social Security Number application was processed.

3. Your kids are less likely to have their numbers hacked
Nowadays, Social Security numbers are randomized and contain none of the old markers, because hackers have trained computers to make alarmingly accurate guesses as to what your number might be with only a few pieces of information.

4. 001-01-0001 is the card with the lowest possible number
It was issued to Grace D. Owen from Concord, N.H. I wonder how soon after the SSA started publishing that particular fun fact the identity theft industry was born. Speaking of which...

5. More than 40,000 people have claimed 078-05-1120 as their number
It's the number issued to Hilda Schrader Whitcher, who was a secretary at a wallet manufacturing company in Lockport, N.Y. A vice president at the company decided to illustrate their wallets' utility by using a sample Social Security card. (Not a bad idea, as it was 1938, and Social Security cards were pretty new.) However, unlike the fake cardboard iPhones and Kindles used to show how that Hello Kitty case fits on your device, the fake card in the wallet contained Hilda's real Social Security number. And it was for sale at Woolworth's and other department stores across the country. Over time, the SSA had to straighten out more than 40,000 incorrect earnings reports attributed to Hilda's number, some as recent as 1977.

Hilda didn't invite the scrutiny. But several years ago, the CEO of LifeLock (a company that sells fraud-protection products for consumers) did so by plastering his Social Security number on billboards and buses. That promotional stunt also didn't work out quite as planned.

6. When you die, your number dies, never to be issued again
The SSA says there are plenty of numbers to last for generations to come. On a similar note, if you're assigned a new number, the old one will still follow you to the grave. It will be cross-referenced and on record with your new one so that all your earnings under both numbers are credited to your name.

7. You can lose your card 10 times during your lifetime (but only three times in a single year) and still get a free replacement card
After that, it'll cost you to get a new card. Legal name changes and stuff like that don't count toward the limits. 

8. You can change your number if the digits you were assigned contain bad mojo
If you can prove that you have religious or cultural issues with certain numbers, you can request a new number. You'll have to provide documentation from your religious group.

Here are other acceptable reasons to get a new number:

  • You're experiencing ongoing issues after being the victim of identity theft
  • Your number (and the ability for people to use it to track you) leads to harassment or endangers your life
  • Someone else is using the same number (e.g., your roommate or evil twin) or seems to be using the same number (e.g., it's being mistakenly entered into various systems because someone with a similar number has bad handwriting that leads it to be misinterpreted as your number)

9. In prison? No problem!
SSA.gov has a pamphlet for you!

This has been Fun Facts About Social Security, Social Security cards and numbers edition. Craving more? Stay tuned. I've got pages and pages of research coming your way!

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