Joyce Simpson, 87, was “scared to death” when her Social Security and pension checks stopped showing up in the mail.
“Scared, because I didn’t know what was happening. I was alone,” the Bremerton woman said. “And I didn’t have any money.”
It turns out the federal government had mistakenly declared Simpson dead in 1997. Her name was added to a list of deceased people in the United States maintained by the U.S. Social Security Administration called the “Death Master File.” Social Security has kept the massive database since 1980 to prevent consumer fraud. Social Security and Medicare consult it when allocating benefits, and businesses use it to help determine eligibility for bank loans, credit cards and insurance coverage.
The problem is it contains names of people like Simpson, who are very much alive. Social Security spokesman Mark Hinkle admitted that 1 in every 200 entries to the Death Master File is false because of “inadvertent keying errors” by federal workers.
“We make it clear that our death records are not perfect and may be incomplete or, rarely, include information about individuals who are alive,” Hinkle said.
Some of the “walking dead” have spent years trying to fix the problem, and have been turned down for home-mortgage, student and credit-card loans.
Simpson said her problem did not begin with a keyboarding mistake by some unknown person. Rather, it began with a trip to the bank in 1995.
Her husband had just died, and she had to have his name taken off their joint savings account, she explained.
But the bank instead removed her name, Simpson said. Soon, her name went onto the Death Master File.
It took months to straighten out, Simpson said.
Simpson is among 21 people in Kitsap and Mason counties who wrongly appeared in the Death Master File. In a sample of the years 1998, 2008 and 2011, Scripps Howard News Service identified nearly 32,000 names nationally that were wrongly put on the list. Those names, including those of the 21 local people, later were removed after the Social Security Administration identified the mistake.
The effects of being declared dead can be more severe than a pesky inconvenience.
“It has just been one thing right after another since I found out that I was dead,” said Judy C. Rivers, 58, of Jasper, Ala. “Right now, I am still looking for a job. I hate to give out my Social Security number because I know exactly what is going to happen.”
Dozens of times, Rivers has been told that her Social Security number was inactive because she’s deceased. Police detained her for several hours last year under suspicion of identity fraud when she tried to use her debit card at a local Walmart. She’s been denied college aid and home-refinance loans, been refused job interviews because of irregularities in her file and been rejected 14 times for credit cards.
Social Security denied it was the source of the error in Rivers’ records and gave her letters certifying that she is alive and that her Social Security account is active.
Scripps Howard News Service easily obtained the names and Social Security numbers of the 32,000 alive people on the Death Master File. Experts warn that this information is all a thief would need to commit many kinds of identity fraud.
“This information should not be public. It puts all of these people at risk for identity theft and other forms of fraud,” said Beth Givens, director of the San Diego-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a consumer advocacy group.
“The Social Security number, unfortunately, has taken on a lot more purposes than it was originally meant to. It is being used both as an identifier and an authenticator,” she said.