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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Are there live people in the SSDI?

A recent blog post by The Ancestry Insider reported that "every month over a thousand living people are listed by Social Security as dead." He quoted a news article dated 8 February 2013 from "WFLA 8" in Tampa Florida and cited a YouTube video:

The question is whether or not the supposed statistic is correct. If it is true, more than 12,000 people a year would be incorrectly characterized a dead while still living. Unfortunately the video gives only two anecdotal incidents to support its allegation of the number of living people listed as dead. Since genealogist rely on the information in the SSDI or Social Security Death Index, this claim is of more than passing interest. So what are the facts?

A much earlier story appeared in on August 17, 2011 and claimed "Social Security wrongly declares 14,000 people dead each year." The article claims:
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.
Along with more anecdotal evidence, the article cites a "recent investigation" by the Inspector General as follows:
Of course, Brooks isn't the only living person to have been put in the Social Security graveyard. In a recent investigation, the Social Security Office of the Inspector General, which oversees the Social Security Administration, discovered that the Death Master File contained 36,657 death entries between May 2007 and April 2010 for people who were very much alive.
OK, so there is supposed to be some kind of report? Interestingly, another news article claims that the Social Security Administration failed to report over 1.2 million people who were dead and that the SSDI is missing those people. See "Social Security's Inspector General: Master death list missing 1.2 million."

An even earlier article appeared in the on 8 July 2011, entitled, "I'm not dead: Social Security agency makes grave mistake for thousands." So, apparently, the story is getting passed around the country by news services. Both written and video news has several articles on the subject.

Well, how about going to the Social Security Administration website and see what they have to say about the subject. Unfortunately none of the news outlets spreading this story reported the source. (Isn't there something in genealogy about lack of sources?) Or better yet, the Office of the Inspector General for the Social Security Administration. Hmm. There doesn't appear to be much on the site about this issue, especially if it is such a big problem. As a matter of fact, it turns out that the hearing where this information was supposedly made public was held in conjunction with efforts to limit the use of SSDI information for genealogists! The hearing was supposedly held on 2 February 2012 but the news report of the same topic was dated more than a year before the hearing. See "Alice Brown: A Case of Mistaken Death" in the Palisadian-Post for 19 July 2012.

OK, so the reports of mistakes by the Social Security Administration and the efforts to limit the dissemination of the SSDI are related. Interesting. So let's look at the report of the hearing on the Social Security's Death Records for 2 February 2012. If you are at all interested in the Social Security Death Index, read this article. Here is the pertinent quote:
Our March 2011 report, Follow-up: Personally Identifiable Information Made Available to the Public via the Death Master File, examined whether SSA took corrective actions to address recommendations we made in a June 2008 report on the DMF. In the June 2008 report, we determined that, from January 2004 through April 2007, SSA’s publication of the DMF resulted in the potential exposure of PII for more than 20,000 living individuals erroneously listed as deceased on the DMF. In some cases, these individuals’ PII was still available for free viewing on the Internet—on ancestry sites like and—at the time of our report.
The report goes on to confirm that the Social Security Administration has a percentage of errors that hold as follows:
According to SSA, there are about 1,000 cases each month in which a living individual is mistakenly included in the DMF. SSA said that when the Agency becomes aware it has posted a death report in error, SSA moves quickly to correct the situation, and the Agency has not found evidence of past data misuse.
But this information apparently comes from the 2004 through 2007 report. So this issue is not new news.

So, although the information about the SSDI inaccuracy may be correct, it appears that this is not a current issue, but was brought up in the context of hearing on limited the availability of the SSDI to genealogists.

I could not find any current information as to whether or not the number of people reported dead that were actually alive was still about 1000 per month. I would suggest that this story, although with real world examples, has now taken on the dimensions of a myth.

From the standpoint of a genealogist, I am not using the SSDI to find people who are recently reported as dead for insurance or other reasons. If there are errors the above report indicates that the Social Security Administration corrects the problems. So, along with all other records, we learn that the SSDI may not be 100% reliable.

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