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Social Security chief concedes ‘havoc’ for those wrongly deemed dead by agency

WASHINGTON – Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue conceded mistakes by his agency “can wreak havoc” for the estimated 14,000 living Americans who each year are falsely reported as dead.

“I take the accuracy of our records and the protection of the personal information that the public entrusts to us very seriously,” Astrue assured Deputy Senate Majority Leader Richard Durbin, D-Ill., in a letter released this week. Durbin asked Astrue to respond to questions raised by a Scripps Howard News Service investigation.

At issue is Social Security’s little-known but widely used database called the Death Master File (DMF) which is supposed to list the Social Security numbers of 90 million deceased Americans to protect U.S. businesses and consumers from identity fraud.

About one in every 200 entries is false, officials say, because of “inadvertent keying errors” by federal workers.

“We know that the relatively few serious errors, including posting information about someone who is not deceased, can wreak havoc for that person,” Astrue told Durbin. “When we discover that we have included a living individual on the DMF, we take prompt action to correct our record.”

The SHNS wire service obtained three different copies of the database, compared them, and easily identified 31,931 Americans who were inappropriately listed as dead.

Newspaper and television reporters around the nation interviewed dozens of people on the Scripps Howard list and found many were denied mortgage and college loans, refused credit cards, suffered unexpected disruption of cell phone service, shut out of job interviews, had trouble getting apartment leases and, in one case, detained by police for several hours after using a debit card.

The death file became a public document in 1980 after business interests filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to obtain the records. The National Technical Information Service, an agency of the Department of Commerce, sells the file to more than 300 clients, Astrue told Durbin.

“Government, financial, investigative, credit reporting, medical research and other organizations use the public DMF to verify death and to prevent fraud, including identity fraud,” Astrue said.

“To date, we have found no instances of fraud or misuse,” the commissioner said. “However, if we did, we would immediately notify the affected individual and offer credit monitoring.”

Durbin promised to continue looking into the problem to identify what steps should be taken next.

“Sen. Durbin is encouraged that the Social Security Administration has identified this as a problem and is working on ways to mitigate the impact,” said spokeswoman Christina Mulka.

The Scripps Howard study found that errors in the file do not occur evenly throughout the United States. More than a third of errors detected in 2007 were false death listings of residents of Illinois, prompting Durbin to ask for more information.

“Although we are aware of the Scripps Howard News Service report, we are unaware of any increased error rate for the state of Illinois and are unable to verify the data included in that story,” Astrue said.

Scripps Howard delivered to Social Security officials on Monday the names and other identifying information of 461 Illinois residents who were falsely listed as dying in 2007 — 40 percent of false reports the wire service detected that year.

Astrue said reliance on the state-run Electronic Death Registration (EDR) system — already in use in 32 states, New York City and Washington, D.C., to record information used to produce official death certificates — would be “a significant step to ending these errors. “

“While we wait for usage of EDR to increase, we have taken steps to limit errors in manual inputs,” Astrue said.

He did not say what those steps are.

(Contact SHNS investigative reporter Thomas Hargrove at hargrovet(at)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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