Two women, one Social Security number, and a mighty big mess

Two women

Jieun Kim of Los Angeles and Jieun Kim of Chicagoland say their lives were turned upside down because the SSA mistakenly issued them both the same number.

They have the same name. They were born on the same day in South Korea. And they were both assigned the same Social Security number after they emigrated to the United States.

This bureaucratic bungle has bedeviled Jieun Kim, of Los Angeles, and Jieun Kim, who lives just outside Chicago in Evanston, Illinois, for almost as long as they’ve been in this country.

Over the past five years, the 31-year-old women have had their banking and savings accounts shut down. They have had their credit cards blocked. They have been suspected of engaging in identity theft.

And, they say, the Social Security Administration has been either unable, or unwilling, to rectify its mistake.

The result has been a level of frustration that LA Kim has likened to “throwing (an) egg onto the huge rock.”

“I’m left with fear about what is in store for me as I have to deal with this terrible aftermath of the Social Security Administration’s mistake in giving one Social Security number to two people,” she said.

Chicagoland Kim said the SSA won’t own up to its mistake.

“This kind of mix-up can happen with Asian people because they have very similar names,” she says she was told by its workers.

But after she recently filled out an application to get a new Social Security number, the SSA sent her the same number she had before and blamed the snafu on computer error.

“This is because the computer recognizes you guys as one person,” Chicagoland Kim says she was told by agency workers.

More ominously, LA Kim said, she was warned by some of the SSA workers she dealt with not to make a fuss about the mistake because it could delay her getting a green card.

“The officer told me that talking about this Social Security number mix-up could result in delaying the green card process that could be done in six months to 2-3 years,” she said.

NBC News reached out to the SSA by email and telephone Wednesday seeking an explanation for how the two women ended up with the same Social Security number, and for comment on the insensitive and threatening remarks the two women say agency workers made. The agency has not responded.

James A. Lewis, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan think tank that specializes in solving security issues, said this kind of error is rare.

“To get a card, you are supposed to present either an original document or a certified copy,” Lewis, who has made recommendations for updating the Social Security number system, said in an email. “Sounds like a glitch, maybe human error. The error rate is pretty low — they’ve issued 450 million cards.”

When there is a mistake, he said, “it’s usually the other way around with one person getting two numbers.”

Still, the likelihood of error could be increased by the fact that Kim is the one of the most common Korean surnames.

LA Kim, who was born in Seoul, said she left South Korea in 2012 for Los Angeles to attend an English language school and to study liberal arts at a community college. She said she had a work permit and a job as a graphic designer.

She married a fellow South Korean immigrant who already has a green card, and she applied for her own green card this year. In the 10 years since she emigrated, she has not returned to Seoul out of fear that she would not be allowed to return to the U.S.

“It was so true, especially under the Trump administration,” she said of the fear.

Chicagoland Kim was born just south of Seoul in a small city called Anyang. She arrived in the Chicago suburb in 2017 to study at Northwestern University. A doctoral student, she said a full scholarship covered her first year of studies.

Her problems, and those of LA Kim, began in 2018 after they were both issued Social Security cards bearing the same number.

LA Kim got hers June 18, 2018. Chicagoland Kim received her card a little over a month later on July 23.

Sometime after that, Chicagoland Kim said, she went to her local Chase Bank branch to open an account, only to find out someone else already used her Social Security number to open an account.

“I immediately reported that somebody stole my Social Security number to the IRS, the Social Security Administration and the police,” she said. “But I was so busy with my studies that I was not able to follow through and I just left it there.”

Then in 2021, Chicagoland Kim said, she learned that Robinhood “closed down my stock trading account without even consulting me.”

Then last year, she started getting notices from the IRS. “I was having trouble getting the Covid-19-related government payment,” she said.

The IRS informed her that she had already applied for the money.

“It really was mind-blowing,” she said. “I couldn’t understand what was going on but I did understand something terrible was happening to me and that it’s getting me in big trouble.”

The last straw came in January, Chicagoland Kim said, when her credit cards were canceled.

“So I called my credit card companies and demanded to know why,” she said “The only answer I got from them was that they cannot tell me because it’s a security issue and identity protection issue.”

Chicagoland Kim said she gathered up all her documentation and returned to Chase Bank where she filed a formal report.

“By this time, I really wanted to talk to whoever was using my Social Security number,” she said. “To make a long story short, I learned that I could leave a number at the bank for the other person to get in touch with me. The people at the bank and my friends tried to stop me, saying this could make things worse.”

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, the other Kim said she too was having banking and credit card problems. But not being familiar with how the system works in the U.S., she didn’t immediately report it to the SSA or the police and let her bank sort them out.

“Oh, there were some strange things going on when I was trying to use my card or do my banking,” she said. “It wasn’t until like the end of January that I became certain that there was a serious problem using my Social Security number.”

That’s when she finally went to the police and the SSA, but got little help.

Finally, LA Kim said, when she learned that her credit card had been canceled, she went to Chase bank to find out why.

“Then, almost by a miracle, a huge breakthrough happened,” she said.

LA Kim said she learned that her namesake in Evanston had, on Feb. 4, left a number with the bank with instructions for whoever was using her Social Security number “to contact her.”

“I was very upset,” LA Kim said. “Clearly, she was also very upset. So, our first text message didn’t go well.”

It wasn’t long, though, before they both realized what happened.

“We figured out that we weren’t weird people or thieves and that we happened to share one Social Security number,” LA Kim said.

Two days later, the Kims said they visited their SSA offices.

“Although the SSA officers didn’t readily believe me, they eventually admitted that the same Social Security number was given to me” and the other Kim, LA Kim said.

Now, both Kims said, they hope the SSA can give one of them a new number and clean up their records.

Right now, they said, their personal information and income histories are merged.

Also, LA Kim said, SSA records list her as having four parents — hers and Chicagoland Kim’s. And the agency has, so far, refused to give her a letter confirming there was a snafu so she can get her green card application moving, she said.

“It really is disappointing and baffling that they will not take responsibility for their mistake,” she said.

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