The winning number

When I was a mere young pup (well, about 12 at least), an official looking envelope arrived for me through the postmail one morning. Given that the only things that ever arrived with my name on them were birthday cards containing book tokens, I opened the letter with equal measures of excitement and fear. Had I won that Bryan Robson competition I’d entered in Shoot magazine, or had the police somehow discovered that I had nicked a packet of Chewits from my sister and were duly coming to take me away for a lengthy spell in chokey?

Having ripped open the thin white envelope, I found what appeared to be a red and blue plastic credit card, with my name clearly embossed upon it. Sadly it wasn’t actually a device that would enable me to buy all the Airfix kits that my heart desired, but instead a simple National Insurance card that would allow the UK state to keep track of my earnings, taxation, insurance contributions and other such administrative detail. It was profoundly disappointing, especially as I was hoping not to work for, well, as long as I possibly could.

I used to carry the card around with me in my wallet though, hoping that it somehow made up for the lack of Mastercard or Visa. It never did of course, and by the age of about sixteen, I put it in a drawer and forgot about it.

Since then, I’ve had to go into the drawer to find my NI card on about three occasions, despite having received it more than twenty years ago. And that’s not because I’ve memoriszed it either – I know it starts with an NZ, and I could probably hazard a guess at the next two numbers, but after that I’m stuck. It’s actually just that, being honest, your National Insurance number isn’t really that important in the UK. Sure, I probably had to give it to my first employer, and I vaguely seem to remember once needing it to register for a new doctor, but other than that the card has languished in its dusty home for many a year.

Move to America though, and nothing could be further from the truth. Suddenly your social security number is the key to your kingdom, the lack of which makes you about as much use as a one-legged man at an arseass-kicking party. From pharmacists to credit card companies, failure to remember your social security number is like being handed a card saying “do not pass go, do not collect anything whatsoever.” It’s only a matter of time before a Starbucks barista refuses to give me a triple shot skinny latte unless I give him the fifth and ninth digit of the code.

The strange thing is that for all the importance placed on the social security number, the card that holds it is a flimsy bit of paper that is about as remarkable as a Zsa Zsa Gabor wedding. Numerous times I’ve almost thrown it in the bintrash in amongst the mass of forwarded communications from Sky or Nectar. Admittedly that’s probably got more to do with my dodgy filing, but given that the number is seemingly integral to American life, you’d think they’d at least splash out on a laminating machine.

Anyway, it seems as though it’s probably time I committed the number to memory. It does mean that I run the risk of having Jack Bauer and CTU extract it from me by torturous means if I’m implicated in a Syrian terrorist crisis, as my social security number would almost certainly be the combination needed to launch any nuclear device. But it’s probably a small price to pay for the ability to buy a coffee without filling out seventeen forms in triplicate.

5 thoughts on “The winning number

  1. Jonathan Jones

    With identity theft so prevalent, it’s generally not a good idea to give out your SSN to anyone who asks for it. In a lot of cases, that just gives them leverage over you that they wouldn’t otherwise have (increasing their ability to harass you in case of a bill or fee you disagree with). A good rule of thumb is to refuse to give it out unless absolutely required — and there are very few such cases where you can’t get away with an alternative such as providing another form of ID, or putting down a small deposit. See

  2. Paul Sheffrin

    The equivalent of an SSN in Canada is the Social Insurance Number. You can guess the acronym without my spelling it out. A friend of mine, a Rabbi, recently landed from the US, was asked by some minion of officialdom if he knew his SIN. Fortunately, he realized the error of his ways before admitting to the error of his ways!

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