Living with credit

Limits to Death Master File won’t save credit zombies

Kelly Dilworth

In an effort to combat identity theft, U.S. lawmakers have restricted access to the Social Security Administration’s infamous Death Master File.

In order to gain access to the federal death registry — which records every known death in the United States — you now have to apply for a special certification and prove that you have a legitimate interest in the file.

Limits to Death Master File won't save credit zombies

The new provision is designed to cut down on identity theft by making it harder for fraudsters to identify who just recently died. Before the rule was enacted, anyone with an Internet connection could access the Death Master File for a small fee and pull the names, birthdays and Social Security numbers of the recently deceased.

But if you were hoping the new restrictions would cut down on the number of times people are mistakenly declared dead by the federal agency, you’re out of luck. The new rule doesn’t address the Death Master File’s accuracy — which has repeatedly come under fire for mistakenly listing the names and Social Security numbers of people who are still several feet above ground.

Meanwhile, credit card companies and credit bureaus that rely on the federal death registry to combat fraud still have access to the list. So if your name accidentally surfaces in the database, you could have trouble applying for credit, renting an apartment or landing a new job.

Stronger protections
The good news for consumers is that the new rules will make it a lot harder for criminals to steal their loved one’s identities.

Before lawmakers cloaked the federal database, fraudsters routinely used the information to file fraudulent tax returns, open credit card accounts and apply for cell phones and other products that require some kind of background check.

According to a 2012 study by the fraud prevention firm ID Analytics, for example, the names, birthdays and Social Security numbers of almost 800,000 deceased Americans were stolen every year and used to open fraudulent credit accounts and cell phone plans.

Consumers whose names are mistakenly added to the list should also benefit from the new provisions because their personal information will no longer be made publicly available.

Previously, if you were unlucky enough to be declared dead by the Social Security Administration, you not only had to deal with federal agencies and private companies suddenly cutting you off; you also had to contend with potentially having your Social Security number stolen or posted all over the Web. (Before the restrictions, genealogy websites frequently shared sensitive information from the Death Master File.)

The bad news is, the new rules won’t make it any easier to get your name off the Death Master File if it’s already there. And it won’t cut down on the number of people who are mistakenly declared dead each month.

Problems with the Death Master File remain
According to some estimates, around 1,000 people per month are mistakenly declared dead by the Social Security Administration and added to the Death Master File.

In some cases, the temporary slipup can be easily fixed by a visit to your local Social Security Office. But in other cases, it can take months or even years to get your name permanently removed.

In the meantime, you may have trouble paying your bills or applying for credit because your bank accounts and credit reports could be automatically frozen. (Banks and credit bureaus regularly mine the Death Master File in order to fight back against fraud.) And any checks you receive from the federal government, such as your monthly Social Security check, will be cut off until you can prove you’re still alive.

The media is full of horror stories of consumers who have struggled to get their names off the list and have been financially pummeled by the misinformation. (For example, in one of the most famous cases, a woman from Alabama spent two years trying to get her name off the list.)

Meanwhile, lawmakers have repeatedly criticized the Death Master File’s accuracy. But little has been done so far to fix the problem. There’s currently one bill before Congress that aims to make the Death Master File more accurate. But it still has a ways to go before it has any chance of getting passed. 

Until then, consumers who have been mistakenly declared dead can rest assured that their personal information won’t be posted online for anyone to see. But it could be awhile before they can actually get their names off the list.

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