Grave Mistakes Grave Mistakes

Editorial: Social Security's grave mistakes

To the living, being recorded as dead by the federal government is no laughing matter, more like a nightmare, and it happens with unsettling frequency.

Each month, the Social Security Administration falsely records that nearly 1,200 living Americans have died. That happened to Judy Rivers, 58, of Jasper, Ala. Before the mistake could be rectified, she had been denied home loans and college aid, turned down for job interviews, rejected 14 times for credit cards and questioned by police on suspicion of identity fraud.

Checks with Social Security’s huge database reported that her Social Security number either could not be confirmed or had been deactivated because of her supposed death.

Others mistakenly listed on the agency’s Death Master File have been refused medical disability payments and federal tax refunds, and had their credit cards cancelled and their bank accounts frozen.

Thomas Hargrove of Scripps Howard News Service obtained three years’ worth of the federal death file and found that 31,931 Americans recorded as dead in 1998 and 2008 had been taken off the 2011 death list because the Social Security Administration discovered they were still living.

SSA blames the mistaken entries largely on “inadvertent keying errors” by federal employees. While these are a tiny fraction of the 2.7 million deaths reported annually, the Death Master File, created in 1981 to verify identities and combat fraud, is now a widely used resource for prospective employers, banks and credit card and insurance companies.

The Death Master File is widely available and easily accessed, too easily, according to Social Security’s Office of the Inspector General. The erroneous death entries contain what the agency calls PII, personally identifiable information, including the subject’s full name, Social Security number, date of birth, and the ZIP codes of last-known residences.

The inspector general recommended additional precautions to avoid errors and limit the amount of personal information available to the public on the death file. The inspector general said the agency disagreed with both recommendations. Thus it’s still possible to go on living but be dead as far as Uncle Sam is concerned.

If you do turn up dead in the database, contact your local Social Security office, preferably in the flesh. And it might help to get a letter from your doctor attesting to your continued existence as one Arizona woman was forced to do.

Social Security Administration workers, shown at Baltimore headquarters in 1937, produced thousands of "employee master cards" that allowed the federal government to begin tracking millions of Americans. Officials assured the public that chances of error were "infinitesimal." (SHNS photo courtesy Library of Congress)

Social Security Administration workers, shown at Baltimore headquarters in 1937, produced thousands of "employee master cards" that allowed the federal government to begin tracking millions of Americans. Officials assured the public that chances of error were "infinitesimal." (SHNS photo courtesy Library of Congress)

Social Security Administration workers, shown at Baltimore headquarters in 1937, produced thousands of "employee master cards" that allowed the federal government to begin tracking millions of Americans. Officials assured the public that chances of error were "infinitesimal." (SHNS photo courtesy Library of Congress)

Social Security Administration workers, shown at Baltimore headquarters in 1937, produced thousands of "employee master cards" that allowed the federal government to begin tracking millions of Americans. Officials assured the public that chances of error were "infinitesimal." (SHNS photo courtesy Library of Congress)

Social Security Administration workers, shown at Baltimore headquarters in 1937, produced thousands of "employee master cards" that allowed the federal government to begin tracking millions of Americans. Officials assured the public that chances of error were "infinitesimal." (SHNS photo courtesy Library of Congress)

Social Security Administration workers, shown at Baltimore headquarters in 1937, produced thousands of "employee master cards" that allowed the federal government to begin tracking millions of Americans. Officials assured the public that chances of error were "infinitesimal." (SHNS photo courtesy Library of Congress)

Social Security Administration workers, shown at Baltimore headquarters in 1937, produced thousands of "employee master cards" that allowed the federal government to begin tracking millions of Americans. Officials assured the public that chances of error were "infinitesimal." (SHNS photo courtesy Library of Congress)