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On Dec. 1, 1936, newspapers across the United States ran stories about John David Sweeney, Jr., the first person to receive a Social Security number. Ironically, Sweeney died before he received any Social Security benefits, according to the Social Security Administration‘s history website.

Sweeney was the face and name the media got to put on Social Security numbers, but he wasn’t officially the first number recipient. Determining that person wasn’t really possible, given that thousands of post offices started distributing them in November 1936. The Social Security Administration composed a timeline of what happened in the days leading up to the news about Sweeney, but it isn’t terribly specific. Here’s how it’s laid out on their website:

It started with a lot of paperwork. More than 45,000 post offices were supposed to start sending forms to local employers on Nov. 16, 1936, asking how many people they employed. Once those forms were returned, the post office sent the employers a form for each employee to fill out — that process was supposed to start Nov. 24. Once individuals returned their forms to the post office, either by hand or in the mail, a number was assigned to and a card was produced for them. Only 1,074 post offices were designated as “typing centers,” where the cards were physically made. Once the numbers and cards had been created, that information went to the Social Security Administration headquarters in Baltimore.

Apparently, some of this happened before those designated dates, and because of the volume of numbers being assigned simultaneously, there’s no way to know who received the first Social Security number. Sweeney — a 23-year-old resident of New Rochelle, New York — got the notoriety of having the first Social Security number and card because an official at the Social Security Administration headquarters picked his paperwork off the top of a stack and declared it so. As for what the digits of this first Social Security number were, the SSA didn’t get into details, just saying that it wasn’t “1,” a single number or the lowest number.

According to the SSA’s article on this moment in history, Sweeney died at age 61 of a heart attack, and even though he never saw the benefits, his wife did. Until she died in 1982, Sweeney’s wife received Social Security benefits he had accrued.

These days, Social Security numbers tend to come up in the media as a part of bad news: identity theft. The Social Security number is an identity thief’s holy grail, and once a victim’s number has been exposed, he or she is forever at risk of experiencing the fraud. Checking your credit report regularly can be one way to detect fraud in terms of new financial accounts. You can get your credit reports for free every year from AnnualCreditReport.com, and you can get your free credit report summary, updated every month, on Credit.com.

More on Identity Theft:

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