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CLEVELAND – It doesn't take much searching to find full social security numbers of people who have died. But a Scripps Howard News Service investigation found some of these dead people are actually alive.
"It's very hard to prove you're alive when the paper says you're dead," Judy Rivers said.
Rivers said proving she's alive is a living nightmare. She's been denied credit, jobs and even her innocence.
"When I used the debit card, unfortunately, the police were called and they took me to the police station because they thought it was ID theft," Rivers explained.
Rivers didn't steal someone else's identity. She was robbed of her own identity when someone somewhere marked "dead" next to Rivers' social security number.
The Social Security Administration said it did not make the error in Rivers' record. But according to a 2008 Inspector General's report, data entry is the "primary source of error."
Grave mistakes not always the government's fault
5 On Your Side found it's not always the government's fault. Sometimes, consumers make the data entry error.
"It was my fault in the beginning, but how many times can you call someone and tell them yeah I'm talking to you, I'm breathing, I'm alive? They just wouldn't believe me," Candace Adkins said.
With a click of a mouse on a tax return, Adkins declared herself dead. It took her two years to fix the problem, even though the Inspector General report said 90 percent of the time it takes just a year to fix the mistake.
"I don't understand why it took so long," Adkins said.
Mistakes may lead to identity theft
The longer it takes to fix, the higher the chance your information could be stolen. When you die, your social security numbers, name, date of birth, death date and zip codes become public information.
The information is available to anyone on the Internet in a database known as the Death Master File. The database is publicly available to prevent fraud, but when the data is wrong it can cause fraud.
"It made me wonder too if I was going to be a victim of identity theft," Adkins said.
Adkins finally re-gained her true identity and it doesn't appear anyone tarnished it while she was "dead." But making this wrong information public is a concern for Consumer Watchdog . It's an organization fighting for justice for American consumers and taxpayers.
"This is not an error that is minor this is an error that can cause serious financial harm to consumers," said Consumer Watchdog Washington Director Carmen Balber.
An investigation by our partners at the Scripps Howard News Service found 31,931 Americans who were declared "dead" and later found to be "alive." In Ohio, more than 1,054 people had this happen to them.
It's an error the Social Security Administration doesn't deny, but the agency said it's rare. In a response to the Inspector General's report, Social Security wrote, "We have found that the DMF (Death Master File) is 99.59 percent accurate."
Social security added a disclaimer to the Death Master File that said it "cannot guarantee the accuracy of the death master file." The Inspector General said making that information public knowing it may be wrong is against social security's own policy to protect confidential information.
"I think Americans would expect them to protect it more seriously," Balber said.
The Inspector General recommended the Social Security Administration take extra steps to avoid errors and limit the amount of information publicly available, but the Inspector General said Social Security disagreed with both recommendations.
Checking your status
It's a frustrating runaround for consumers caught in the middle.
"I think there has to be a better system developed. This just doesn't work," Rivers said.
If you check your credit report at least once a year, you're likely to spot a mistake with your name. You can check your report for free once a year at Annual Credit Report . You'll get access to a report from the three credit reporting agencies.
To keep tabs on your credit year round, get the report from one reporting agency every four months. For example, in January, pull your TransUnion report. In May, pull the Experian report. In September, pull the Equifax report. All three reports can be obtained for free from Annual Credit Report.
You can also search the Death Master File. It's sold on a prescription basis, and was made public at the request of business interests to prevent fraud. The genealogy site Ancestry.com makes it available online.
If you spot a mistake, contact the Social Security Administration at 1-800-772-1213 or go to the closest social security office: http://ssa.gov
If you think you're a victim of a grave mistake, let us know.
WEB EXTRAS: Read these reports from the SSA
Report #1: Inspector General 2008 report – http://5.wews.com/ICJ
Report #2: Inspector General 2010 report – http://5.wews.com/S2q
- State-by-State Stats
Below are the numbers or errors per state and the error rate per 100,000 population within each state. States with unusually high levels of errors are the District of Columbia, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Source: Scripps Howard News Service analysis of the Social Security Administration's Death Master File for 1998, 2008 and 2011.