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I can confirm that only some numbers matter

Rochester Business Journal
November 29, 2013

After an uneventful beginning, the confirmation number has achieved an important rank in the lives of us all, especially those who go anyplace, order anything or are involved in any form of commerce, no matter how infinitesimal and inconsequential.

You have probably noticed, but permit me to review the typical arrangement: After the completion of a transaction, the seller creates and presents a confirmation number to the buyer and suggests that the number be retained in a safe place.

The implication is that possession of that number is of critical importance to the buyer in case the seller, for some reason, fails to complete whatever agreement resulted in the issuance of the number in the first place.

"You should record this confirmation number," the seller usually emphasizes.

Time elapses. The deal in question is completed; despite its supposed importance, the confirmation number is never again mentioned. The seller is very efficient in giving out the numbers but has absolutely no interest in collecting them or even referring to them.

Just recently I completed a bargain deal on the Internet and made a note of the following confirmation number: 103-1157068-7349812. That is 19 characters with the hyphens. The total effort involved an expenditure of $4.58, including shipping. Did I really need such a major confirmation number for such a minor acquisition?

As I was wondering about that, I placed an order with another supplier for $19.99, including shipping. Here is the number generated, with 30 characters, which I dutifully recorded: 1601CC52-2B7A-709AOD964AA03B82.

Those monumental numbers prompted me to consider the importance that some numbers have assumed in our lives.

For years I went about my regular routine, whatever that happened to be at the time, totally oblivious and unaware of the important details regarding a card in my wallet. I had acquired that card as a student, and it has survived for all the intervening years, outliving many wallets and being shown to others on only the rarest occasions. It is worn and tattered now but still legible and serviceable.

It has a distinctive and ungainly number-nine digits unrelated to one another, randomly assigned. For years I did not bother to memorize that number. What would be the point? It was imprinted on the stubs that were part of my paychecks, as well as attached to my bank account and certain other documents. You have a similar card with a different set of nine numbers in your wallet.

I speak of my Social Security card, of course. Little did I realize on the day of its issuance how the status of that card would be enhanced as we ambled through life together. In those days, businesses had the authority to issue cards as needed. I was applying for a part-time warehouse position, but I couldn't be hired without a card.

I had always been employed "off the books," compensated for various odd jobs with no official status. I was working in what years later became known as the shadow economy. But on that day I completed some papers and an office clerk typed my name on the card and handed it to me, smiling as she declared, "You are now socially secure."

Numbers have become more important in the lives of all as the development of computers made it simpler to create, assign and track numbers associated with specific individuals. Those nine digits eventually became one of the two most important numbers in my life. Along with my date of birth (DOB), the Social Security number (SSN) is now an essential identifying factor.

For years, many individuals were fearful of the depersonalization of society, becoming "just a number." Has that happened? During a telephone contact a few months ago, a woman asked me to give "the last four numbers of your social." I understood the abbreviated term and immediately responded. She asked me to repeat the number. I did.

"That is not what we have here," she replied.

I was amazed. I repeated the four numbers.

"I'm sorry," she said. "That is incorrect."

Panic ensued. I knew the proper numbers, but somehow her files showed something different. I beseeched her to recheck her database, but she insisted I was wrong, that she had the correct data and that we could not continue with our conversation. I had visions of the wrong numbers being flashed across the Internet.

I finally convinced her by correctly reciting my mother's maiden name. She then completed the transaction and, naturally, furnished a confirmation number, which she urged me to remember.

Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.

11/29/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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