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

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 immigrating to the United States.

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

Over the past five years, 31-year-old women have had their banking and savings accounts closed. Their credit cards were blocked. They are suspected of identity theft.

And, they say, the Social Security Administration was unable, or unwilling, to correct its mistake.

The result was a level of frustration that resembled LA Kim and “throwing an egg at the giant rock.”

“I’m scared of what the future holds for me because I have to deal with this horrible consequence of the Social Security Administration’s mistake in giving two people one Social Security number,” she said.

Chicagoland Kim said the SSA itself will not make up for its mistake.

“This kind of mixing can happen with Asian people because they have very similar names,” she says her workers told her.

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 a computer error.

“It’s because the computer recognizes you as one person,” Chicagoland Kim says agency workers told her.

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

“The official told me that discussing this mix-up of Social Security numbers could delay 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 phone Wednesday seeking an explanation of how the two women ended up with the same Social Security number, and to comment on the insensitive and threatening statements made by the two female agency workers. did. The agency did not respond.

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

“To get a card, you have to present an original document or a certified copy,” Lewis, who made proposals to update the Social Security number system, said in an email. “It’s a glitch, maybe human error. The error rate is quite low – they have issued 450 million cards.”

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

However, the likelihood of an error could be increased because Kim is 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 school and study liberal arts at a community college. She said she had a work permit and a job as a graphic designer.

    Jieun Kim sitting outside.
Jieun Kim, of Los Angeles. Jieun Kim

She married another immigrant from South Korea who already has a green card, and applied for her own green card this year. In the 10 years since she emigrated, she never returned to Seoul for fear of not being allowed to return to the US.

“It was so real, 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 suburbs of Chicago in 2017 to study at Northwestern University. As a doctoral student, she said a full scholarship covered her first year of study.

Her problems, and LA Kim’s, began in 2018 after they were issued Social Security cards with the same number.

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

Some time later, Chicagoland Kim said, she went to her local Chase Bank branch to open an account, only to find that someone else had already used her Social Security number to open an account.

“I immediately reported that someone had stolen 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 couldn’t continue and I left it there.”

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

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

Jieun Kim, standing next to the Chicago River, which appears to be dyed green for St. Patrick's Day, with the Marina Towers behind her
Jieun Kim lives in Evanston, Illinois. Jieun Kim

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

“It was really mental,” she said. “I couldn’t understand what was going on but I realized that something terrible was happening to me and it’s really troubling me.”

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 response I got from them is that they can’t tell me because it’s an issue security and identity protection.”

Chicagoland Kim said she gathered 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 in the bank for the other person to contact 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 was also having bank and credit card problems. But not knowing how the system works in the US, she didn’t immediately report it to the SSA or the police and let her bank sort them out.

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

That’s when she finally went to the police and the SSA, but she didn’t get much help.

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

“Then, almost miraculously, there was a huge breakthrough,” she said.

LA Kim said she learned her name in Evanston, on Feb. 4, had 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. “She was obviously very upset too. So, our first text message didn’t go well.”

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

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

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

“Although the SSA officials did not believe me easily, they eventually admitted that I had been given the same Social Security number,” said the other Kim, LA Kim.

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

Currently, they said, their personal information and income history are merged.

Also, LA Kim said, SSA records list her as having four parents — she and Chicagoland Kim. And the agency has, so far, refused to give her a letter declaring a snafu so she can move her green card application, she said.

“It’s disappointing and worrying that they won’t take responsibility for their mistakes,” she said.

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