Social Security death file mistakes hit home for chief of agency

This story was first published in the San Angelo Standard-Times and on the Scripps Howard News Service’s website on Feb 3, 2012.

WASHINGTON — Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue admitted Thursday that he, personally, has experienced “the horrible thing” Americans endure when the federal government falsely declares them dead.


“I’ve actually had, in one week, one of my closest relatives and one of my closest friends and neighbors (who both) were declared dead,” though both are very much alive, Astrue told a House Ways and Means subcommittee investigation hearing. “So I was right in the middle of it. It is a horrible thing to go through.”


The Social Security Administration each year mistakenly lists about 14,000 living Americans in a little-known but widely used database called the Death Master File, created 30 years ago under the Freedom of Information Act as an anti-fraud tool for business.


“Anyone of us could find ourselves mistakenly on that list — an inexcusable mistake that exposes our personal information and could cause severe personal and financial hardship,” said. Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, who convened the investigation into the inaccuracies in the Death Master File.


In the first in-depth examination of the unintended consequences of the death file, Scripps Howard News Service last year identified 31,931 Americans who were falsely listed as dead. These victims of clerical error described an Orwellian nightmare in which they were denied mortgages and student loans, refused credit cards, shut out of job interviews and suffered denial or cancellation of cell phone service.


Scripps also uncovered dozens of cases in 11 states where ID thieves used the Social Security numbers, available in the file, to try to profit from the deaths of children. The thieves filed phony tax returns claiming the dead children as dependents and compounding the true parents’ distress.


No living victims were warned they’d been declared dead or that the federal government had publicly released their names, Social Security numbers, dates of birth and other confidential information in the death file. The database is sold to hundreds of groups and posted on the Internet by genealogy groups, although some voluntarily began to limit access after the Scripps stories ran.


Parents learn of the theft of their children’s identity only when their own tax returns are rejected because someone else already claimed them.


The lack of warning does not sit well with Johnson.


“Social Security’s policy is not to inform Americans when they are victims of these kinds of errors. Why can’t you tell the victims and let them take immediate action to protect themselves?” Johnson asked the commissioner.


“We are relooking at this now,” Astrue said.


He said his agency hires a contractor to monitor the credit of individuals who were falsely put on death list.


“We would notify them if there is any indication that there had been any irregularity in their credit, but we are relooking at this.”


Astrue said he hopes the issue will become “irrelevant” if Johnson’s proposed remedy — elimination of the death file as a public record — is enacted by Congress.


“The only way to make sure that, when we make a mistake, it doesn’t have devastating public consequences is to enact legislation that keeps the Death Master File more confidential than it is today,” Astrue said.


Besides Johnson, no one else at Thursday’s hearing endorsed the total elimination of the database, including a victim of one of the worst kinds of abuses of the death file.


“It is my belief that the federal government is responsible for providing information to identity thieves,” said attorney Jonathan Eric Agin of Arlington, Va.


He and his wife, Neely, could not file their federal income taxes after the IRS told them someone else claimed the name and Social Security number of their 4-year-old daughter, Alexis, who had died months before of cancer.


“But I am not interested in closing down the Death Master File. I think a balance should be struck,” Agin told the hearing.


Consumer and business experts agreed.


The death file’s “wide availability has clearly benefitted security firms that use it to deter fraud,” said John Breyault of the National Consumers League. “Pension funds, insurance organizations and medical researchers use this data for completely legitimate reasons.”


Breyault called on Congress to restrict access to only “organizations that can certify a legitimate need for the information.” He also called on Social Security to start “notifying living consumers” who’ve been listed in the file.


Social Security Inspector General Patrick O’Carroll — who has criticized the agency’s administration of the database — urged Congress to “limit public access” of the database rather than terminate it entirely. He also suggested that the government “limit the amount of information included” in the file and start a “several-month delay” in releasing updates to the file to defeat identity thieves.


In the meantime, O’Carroll said, Social Security still falsely lists about 1,000 living Americans each month. “We remain concerned that these errors can lead to premature benefit termination and cause financial hardship and stress,” he said.


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