Genealogists want to keep access to Death Index

The call is out for genealogists to unite in a fight to stop identification theft.

The campaign, spearheaded by the Records Preservation and Access Committee (RPAC), is in reaction to hearings before a congressional Ways and Means subcommittee that could lead to closing public access to the Social Security Death Index (SSDI).

The Subcommittee on Social Security recently listed the death index as a possible source for identity thieves to acquire a deceased person’s Social Security number. The index is on several websites (including Ancestry.com and Genealogy Bank) and is widely used by individuals researching their family roots.

RPAC has called the Subcommittee on Social Security’s proposal to completely shut down use of the SSDI as a short-sighted attempt that runs counter to the original purpose of the index, which it says is “to actually combat fraud.”

RPAC has placed a petition on the We the People website and is urging genealogists and other interested individuals to sign it.

The website was created by the current administration to identify issues of interest to a significant number of Americans. The administration has pledged that issues getting substantial numbers of signatures will be sent to “decision-makers who can best implement solutions and improvements.”

Readers can access the Stop Identity Theft NOW! petition at http://wh.gov/khe. RPAC’s goal is to obtain 25,000 signatures by March 8.

In its call for action, RPAC released a statement that its goal is “to get as many signatures, as quickly as possible, so that the solutions to¬†fraudulent tax refund claims based upon identity theft from recently deceased infants and adults can be taken seriously and implemented immediately. Doing so will help us ensure that the SSDI is available to not just genealogists, but all researchers and information professionals who rely upon its contents.”

RPAC’s voting members are the National Genealogical Society, the Federation of Genealogical Societies and the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies. Participating members of the committee include the Association of Professional Genealogists, the American Society of Genealogists, ProQuest and Ancestry.

Also known as the Death Master File, the index contains more than 89 million deaths (updated weekly) reported to the Social Security Administration. Each record provides a date of birth, death date and last residence of the deceased individual.

Entries usually come when a survivor reports the death in order to stop Social Security benefits of a deceased. Although not every deceased person is listed in the file, it is a great resource for genealogists.

The irony of the situation is that the original purpose of the death index was for government officials to use it to quickly check for fraudulent use of a deceased person’s Social Security number.

“If returns claiming a tax refund were screened against the Master Death File and matching cases identified for special processing, the thief should receive a rejection notice for the filing,” RPAC stated in a press release.

Although the SSDI is a key element in genealogical research, forensic specialists also use it to reunite remains of military veterans with their next-of-kin and descendants. Law offices, banks, and insurance companies use it to resolve probate cases and to locate heirs.

Changing public access to these records, RPAC says, would require spending more money and would require officials to spend time delving though other resources “when the SSDI has served this purpose, uninterrupted, for over a decade.”

RPAC sees “no need for lengthy hearings in front of a congressional committee, no need for filing statements for or against any house action, and no need to waste time and effort which could be directed to more pressing national issues.”

The group suggests that the National Taxpayer Advocate in 2011 issued suggestions that don’t require additional legislation but could be implemented collaboratively between the IRS and Social Security Administration (SSA) almost immediately in time to affect the current tax filing season.

RPAC formed several years ago to advise the genealogical community about matters concerning access to historical records, to affect legislation, and to support strong records preservation policies and practices.

Those interested in signing the petition must first create a WhiteHouse.gov account and verify their email addresses. Step-by-step instructions for signing up are at http://fgs.org/pdf/rpac_petition.pdf. Those who encounter technical problems with the process can contact petition@fgs.org for assistance.

Readers can follow this issue on the RPAC blog at http://www.fgs.org/rpac.

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