How Living People Are Wrongfully Pronounced Dead
Each year, about 1,000 living people are erroneously added to the Death Master File, a database of every American who has died since 1936.
A few weeks ago, Barbara Murphy was having dinner with her husband at a restaurant in Utah when her credit card was declined. Her husband paid the bill, and when they got home, Murphy's granddaughter called the bank to see what was wrong.
"Of course, it's been declined," the bank's representative told her. "She's been dead for two years."
Murphy is, in fact, very much alive. When I spoke to her on the phone this week, she described the agonizing process of proving her life to numerous institutions, all of which believed she had died.
Murphy has been erroneously added to the Death Master File (DMF), a Social Security Agency (SSA) database of every American who has died and was issued a social security number from 1936 onward. It contains approximately 88 million records, each with a name, Social Security number, date of birth, and date of death. When the SSA made the database available for purchase in 1980, financial institutions started to rely on it for fraud detection.
Which is why, when Murphy was listed as dead, her bank flagged the activity in her account as fraud. The bank has since unfrozen her account, but now Social Security is trying to recoup two years of payments—about $20,000—that it claims shouldn't have been paid out since she is listed as dead. She's now contacted a lawyer and gone public, hoping to apply pressure for a quicker resolution. She told me she's been getting calls from all over the country from others in the same predicament.
Exactly how many have been in the same situation as Murphy is not known, but the SSA's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) estimates that approximately 1,000 people are erroneously added to the DMF every month. A 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that SSA deleted 8,200 erroneous deaths from the DMF in the previous year. These numbers show a very small error rate—less than half a percent of the 2.8 million deaths the SSA records each year, according to a spokesperson from the SSA.
Of course, that's hardly a consolation for someone who's been mistakenly marked as dead. In a 2015 Senate hearing, Alabama resident Judy Rivers described the harrowing ordeal she faced after she was added to the DMF in 2008. Even though she had about $80,000 in her bank account, the bank froze the funds because the account was marked for fraud. Every time she needed to apply for something—a credit card, a job, a student loan, an apartment—she was declined, since her "identity could not be confirmed," or her "social security number was inactive."
Rivers ended up living in her car, and then later in a trailer, struggling to find employment beyond low-wage work, despite having a long and impressive résumé.
So how does this happen? A spokesperson for the SSA told me that reports come "primarily from the states, but also from family members, funeral homes, and financial institutions." Funeral directors are among the largest sources of death reports to the SSA, and because it's easy to make errors, there's been a push to get states (which regulate the funeral trade) to switch from paper records to electronic ones. The Electronic Death Registration (EDR) allows states to automatically verify the accuracy of a decedent's Social Security number before they transmit it to the SSA, "virtually eliminating" the problem of paper records. Nora Menkin, a funeral director at Seattle's Co-op Funeral Home, told me that under the old system, death records "went through just fine about 80 percent of the time," but under EDR, she hasn't experienced any errors.
Of course, living people still find their way onto the list. This past May, a man in Michigan—which uses EDR—was placed on the DMF because a funeral director accidentally entered one wrong digit of someone else's Social Security number.
Mistakes on the DMF also get perpetuated because of the way it's distributed. The database is literally a giant text file sold by the Department of Commerce's National Technical Information Service (NTIS). Subscribing institutions can download the updated file weekly or monthly. But NTIS only makes the last six updates available to download; anything further back, and you have to order the text file on CD. The updates aren't cumulative either, so if someone is wrongfully declared dead in one period and SSA corrects the mistake, they include the same entry with the next update (and only that update) with a "D" for "delete" next to the entry. If the subscriber doesn't record that update, or if their software doesn't translate the "D," then their version of the DMF still lists that person as dead. If they resell or share their version, the error gets replicated.
Because of this, correcting errors can be a nightmare. A New York woman, Patricia LaPorta, was added to the DMF in 2014. The SSA told her they'd fixed the problem in May 2015, but as of March of this year, LaPorta still could not borrow money or file her taxes.
Besides causing problems for the living people who are listed as dead, the DMF isn't even a comprehensive record of those who have actually died. The 2013 GAO report identified 130 individuals with negative ages—likely the result of listing the date of death as the date of birth, and vice versa. They also found 1,941 entries with ages between 115 and 195, most likely due to typos. And a 2015 report by the OIG found roughly 6.5 million individuals believed to be missing from the DMF.
There have been a few attempts to raise awareness for the issue. Tom Alciere, who runs the website Cancel These Funerals, offers a free download of the DMF as well as a list of "undeads"—people he thinks were mistakenly added to the list. Alciere told me he does this to put an end to "DMFing"—his name for erroneous death-file inclusion—and claims he's had a few success stories. Four living people discovered through his site that they were listed as dead and worked with the SSA to correct it before it became a problem for them, he told me.
But from the SSA's perspective, the DMF was never designed to be the One True Death List. It was, instead, a way for SSA to administer its own programs—and, based on government audits, it seems the SSA does a pretty good job of using the DMF to ensure it doesn't make unnecessary payments to dead people.
Plus, there are already better private databases of who's dead and who's not, according to a report by the Treasury Department's OIG, and there's no reason private institutions can't use these services today to cross-check the DMF.
Murphy, who is still struggling to resolve the aftermath of being listed on the DMF, believes her fight is far from over. When she visited the SSA's local office to contest her status as a deceased person, she was prompted to enter her Social Security number into the ticket system. It wasn't recognized. "Of course," she said. "Because I'm dead."
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