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Feds wrongly list thousands as dead

About 14,000 people a year are incorrectly listed on the federal government's Death Master File, which can damage personal finances and lead to identity theft.

By Stacy Johnson Sep 13, 2011 3:06PM

Updated Nov. 11, 2011


This post comes from Sandra Parker at partner site Money Talks News.


Peggy Blevins, a Tennessee woman with a long career in the customer-service industry, has heard it all before. But even she was surprised by what a bank teller told her recently.


"I went to the bank to withdraw money and never expected what I heard next," Blevins says. "The bank teller nervously explained to me that all of my accounts had been closed, including the ones I shared with my 86-year-old mother."


The reason? She was dead.


"The Social Security Administration had declared me dead," Blevins recalls. "I was flabbergasted." Within a few days, all of her credit card accounts had been frozen. So had her mortgage.


Blevins' story isn't uncommon. According to an audit by the Office of the Inspector General (.pdf file) in April, Social Security's Death Master File -- which is used by many private companies, including banks and insurance companies -- is rife with errors. From a CNN story:

Of the approximately 2.8 million death reports the Social Security Administration receives per year, about 14,000 -- or one in every 200 deaths -- are incorrectly entered into its Death Master File, which contains the Social Security numbers, names, birth dates, death dates, ZIP codes and last-known residences of more than 87 million deceased Americans. That averages out to 38 life-altering mistakes a day.

Not only can a mistake in the Death Master File cause your bank and credit accounts to be frozen, it can stop Social Security benefits payments -- and even result in the publication of your personal information, which can lead to identity theft. Post continues after video.

How does this happen? The Social Security Administration provides your personal identifying information -- Social Security number, date of birth, etc. -- to the Department of Commerce's National Technical Information Services, which in turn sells it to customers, which can be anyone.


This practice is designed to thwart criminal activity by notifying financial institutions as well as federal, state and local governments of your death. And it works fine -- at least if the person being reported as dead is.


Fortunately for Blevins, her untimely death didn't result in financial loss or identity theft. But putting her life back together took weeks.


If you discover that the Social Security Administration has accidentally killed you off, here's the convoluted and time-consuming process to undo it:

  • Drive to the federal government. While you were pronounced dead via computer, you can only revive yourself in person. So contact your local Social Security Administration office as soon as you can. (Here's how to find yours.) Go there in person and show a photo ID. The office will then launch an investigation.
  • Drive to the county government. From there, go to the keeper of your county's vital records. In many cases, that's the public health department. Ask to file an "amended death certificate." That requires you to fill out an affidavit and file it with the county registrar.
  • Contact your creditors and bank. "Your best bet here is to contact as many of these companies as you can in person," Blevins says. "This gives them the opportunity to validate your identity via photo ID and other security measures." Some may require you to wait until the Social Security Administration updates your record in the Master Death File before they reinstate your accounts. "This was the toughest step for me," Blevins says. "I ended up taking a day off from work in order to go to my bank. Not only did I have to present my photo ID, but I had to show them a copy of my amended death certificate as well."
  • Dispute any inaccuracies with the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion). Because the credit bureaus are required to validate your existence, you'll need to wait until the SSA has updated your record before submitting your disputes. "Thanks to the online dispute process, I was able to submit my corrections online," Blevins says. "However, it took eight weeks for the bureaus to get everything straightened back out."

In the end, Blevins was able to restore her status as a living, breathing, taxpaying citizen. "It was a harrowing ordeal," she says, "but I realize that it could've been much worse. I didn't lose my job, and since I wasn't dependent on Social Security benefits as my main source of income, I could still put food on the table and pay my bills. Many people aren't quite so lucky."


For more information on the Death Master File, visit this SSA Web page.


More on Money Talks News and MSN Money:

Sep 14, 2011 5:35PM
If the Government declares me dead, then I should become fully exempt from ALL LAWS. Yippee!  I can't be prosecuted for robbing a bank because I'm legally dead (and the Government would never risk admitting an error, right?). 
Sep 13, 2011 4:26PM
Well, I certainly learned a lot from this article in case same should happen to me.  However, it doesn't surprise me that I now know another way our government is corrupt.  One hand doesn't know what the other is doing and this just cements the fact that our bloated government is full of people with nothing between the ears.  How come I didn't hear about any apology or monetary award to this person?  Oh that's right, our government is broke and they never apologize because no one knows to apologize because everyone is passing the buck!
Nov 11, 2011 2:05PM
So the government lets dead people continue to vote, and "kills off" live taxpayers. And you still want these people to run our health care system?
Sep 14, 2011 6:40PM

This happened to me. My credit card sale was declined while shopping so I went to my bank to investigate the cause. I was informed by the manager that all my accounts were frozen, due to my death. I tried to talk to them but they informed me "Bank policy does not allow them to communicate with deceased customers". I had to go to social security and prove I was not dead. But the worst part of this mess was my workman's comp checks were stopped, the lawyers that represented me needed a notarized statement and a note from my personal doctor before they would restart my payments. There was no death certificate, no paper trail, and I never found an answer to why social security had listed me deceased. The only good thing was all the complements I got, "You look pretty good for a dead guy".........











Nov 11, 2011 2:05PM

Surprised, I am not.


Disappoint, I am.

Sep 13, 2011 7:49PM
This is a Government plot to save Social Security by declaring you dead
Sep 14, 2011 5:49PM
I've heard a lot of outrageous things the government does, but this is over the top. It's bad enough they say you're dead, but they're providing your social security number to an outfit that can sell it to anyone? Is there a word more outrageous than outrageous?
Sep 14, 2011 7:11PM
Step 1: Have the SSA declare me as dead.

Step 2: Steal my own identity.

Who could ask for anything more!  ~_o


Nov 11, 2011 2:51PM

Just yesterday I went into our SSA office to have my name changed to my new married name.  Even though I had the form completed (which was very legible) the woman not once, but twice spelled things wrong and recorded my home address incorrectly.  I guess the only comforting part is that she had me look over the information.  Small little things they seem, but they can create big problems.  It scares me that we are hiring not so bright and efficienct people. 

Sep 14, 2011 6:28PM
I first learned that I was dead when I applied for a VA home loan in 1968.  Photo ID was not enough to straighten it out.  I was fingerprinted by an FBI agent.  After they compared my fingerprints with those on file in my military service record they decided that I was still alive and I got the loan.  Never was able to straighten it out with the draft board, but that was OK because I had already served in the Navy.  At least I will never be drafted!  ;-)
Nov 11, 2011 3:03PM

Just wait until the government beurocrats control our healthcare system. Sorry mr. Jones we cannot approve your surgery, you are already dead.

Nov 11, 2011 2:42PM

EX-NAVY writes:  " but that was OK because I had already served in the Navy. At least I will never be drafted! ;-)"


Don't be too sure...  I got my draft notice in 1959 while finishing a tour of duty (USAF) in Thule, Greenland. There's really no'one at the helm; we all know that. Still can't figure out how 'they' knew where I was but didn't know what I was doing there.

Nov 11, 2011 2:30PM
too funny. With over $200K in student loans...where can I sign up?!
Nov 11, 2011 2:42PM
To  the person that wanted to know if there is a word  stronger than outrageous.  Yeah, there is a word that is stronger than outrageous. In fact it's two words. It's called a Cluster @$*#. Pardon my French. 
Sep 14, 2011 6:24PM
Hi, I am from the government and I'm here to help you.
Sep 14, 2011 3:12PM
Nov 11, 2011 3:13PM
My younger brother (who is 29) was declared deceased last year after my father passed away. He has been struggling to get it corrected for over a year now. He has sent his credit card companies and the credit bureaus a copy of my father's death certificate and a copy of his birth certificate to prove that they were two different people (their names are not similar, only their initials and there was no Sr./ Jr. surnames either) and they change it for a day or two and then it gets put back on his credit. They have even called me and my other siblings to try collect on a credit card he is STILL PAYING ON!!! 
Sep 14, 2011 6:01PM

The much,much larger problem is the number of dead people collecting social security checks.

The automated deposit system entices poor relatives,spouses,and caregivers into some pretty dreadful actions.

It was found US retirees who went to Ireland or Italy  managed to live to the ripe old age of 105.

It costs the social security enforcement agencies a great deal of money to go Ireland and Italy,and most US enforcement agents did not want to put grandmas into jail,or penalize relatives who  thought it was okay to keep the US checks after the  death. The Irish and Italian bankers seldom questioned the deposits into their coffers.

Sep 13, 2011 5:34PM
I am not surprised one bit.  I have found all kinds of clerical error while I was researching my family tree.  Sometimes initials keyed into the system instead of the decedants full name.  Some death dates are inconsistent with the information on the death certificate.  Sometimes the social security index record is missing all together. 
Sep 14, 2011 5:25PM

This happened to me. I went to open up a bank account and my ss# showed i was deceased. The bank had never seen that before and i had to go through a bunch off phone calls and sending in information.

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