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False government death reports leave people in the lurch

What you can do

What do you do if you are listed as dead in the Social Security Administration’s “Death Master File”?

First, contact your local Social Security office immediately. Do not assume the error will be corrected automatically.

Experts warn that the longer the error remains on file, the greater the risk of having serious problems with credit agencies, banks or one of the many hundreds of institutions that use this record.

“How bad can it get? It can get to the point that you become homeless,” warned Jay Foley, executive director of the San Diego-based Identity Theft Resource Center.

He said he helped an Arizona woman who was refused an apartment after she was listed on the Death Master File.

“We had to get a doctor’s letter confirming that she was alive, believe it or not,” he said.

The SSA also will provide proof-of-life documentation if an error has occurred.

You can contact the SSA at (800) 772-1213 or find the Social Security office nearest you by visiting

The official Death Master File is available online by visiting Other online versions, such as those found on genealogy websites, are not official and might not be up to date, officials said.

Scripps Howard News Service, staff reports

Updated: September 9, 2011 12:40AM

The phrase “dead man walking” doesn’t tell the full story of what Tremayne Gray had to go through.

The Country Club Hills man also was a “dead man” searching for a job, filling out an application — and being turned down.

Gray was 20 years old at the time, and his prospective employer, in conducting a background search, found that Gray was dead.

“I was so stunned,” said Gray, now 35 and still very much alive.

Gray did not get that job or others he applied for shortly afterward. Who wants to hire a dead person?

But Gray’s plight is similar to that of thousands of Americans who mistakenly are reported dead every year by the Social Security Administration or other federal agencies. And Illinois has one of the highest rates of making such grave mistakes, according to a recent report by Scripps Howard News Service.

“It’s weird,” South Chicago Heights resident Jeffrey Zych said of his similar experience with “death.” “It’s weird that you could stand there in front of someone and they would not take your word that you were alive.

“I had to go through a whole ordeal. I had to get doctors, the VA and other people to say I was alive.”

The names of both men and dozens of other Southlanders appeared in a massive “Death Master File” database maintained by the SSA. Research of the database by Scripps Howard’s Thomas Hargrove found the deaths of 31,931 Americans were listed in error.

The government makes about 14,000 such errors every year — or about one for every 200 death reports — because of “inadvertent keying errors” by federal workers, according to SSA spokesman Mark Hinkle.

That would mean about 400,000 people have been falsely declared dead since 1980, when the Death Master File was created at the request of U.S. business interests who wanted records to reduce consumer fraud.

While the SSA authorizes the use of the database as a death verification tool, it is noted on a U.S. Department of Commerce website that contains the official file that the SSA cannot guarantee its accuracy.

‘Dead’ men do tell tales

Zych’s ordeal began in June 1996, when his disability check from Social Security did not arrive on time. He called, reported it and was later issued another check.

Then the first one arrived, too.

Knowing he should not have two checks, Zych, a Vietnam veteran, took one back to the local SSA office. That’s when he learned he had “died” and his checks would stop altogether.

“I’m standing in front of them with my driver’s license. They did not want to listen. They told me I had to prove it,” he said.

“[Friends] laughed until I got a letter from the VA,” he said.

The SSA had reported Zych’s “death” to the VA, but the VA gave him 90 days to clear up the matter. He did so, but only by providing a parade of documentation.

If his VA benefits checks had stopped coming, too, he would have lost his house, Zych said.

SSA later reimbursed him for the months he was considered dead.

In Gray’s case, he said, it took him six to 12 months to prove he did not die on July 15, 1994. During that span, he said, he could not get a job.

“I kept trying to tell them. I kept providing information,” Gray said.

“It took a lot of convincing to prove I was not deceased,” he said. “I was quite disturbed at the time. I was given a job, and it was taken away.”

And he never was told how the mistake was made.

“I was told many things, but I was never told why,” Gray said.

The mystery of ‘death’

That could be because the SSA doesn’t always know why mistakes are made.

“It’s a larger issue than just our agency,” said Doug Nguyen, SSA’s deputy regional communications director in Chicago.

Several agencies other than the SSA submit death reports that might make it to the Death Master File.

“It’s usually human typing errors entered into our system from another system,” Nguyen said. “We do not verify the accuracy of every death record.

“The Social Security number was never meant to be the identifying piece of information it has evolved into,” he said.

“Unfortunately,” he said, errors also can occur in recording the date of birth, date of death or the deceased’s name or address.

Death reports also are provided by individuals, funeral parlors, nursing homes, state and federal agencies such as Medicare, the VA, railroad retirement plans, the Department of Defense and Department of Commerce, and other agencies that pay federal benefits, Nguyen said.

All go into the Death Master File, which records 90 million deceased Americans.

Out of 2 million deaths reported every year, the error rate is about 0.5 percent, Nguyen said.

“But if you are in that half of 1 percent, it feels like 100 percent,” he said.

When his agency discovers incorrect information, it moves “as quickly as possible” to correct it, he said. The agency requires current identification and signed statements from the person — not birth certificates.

Mistakes usually are discovered when someone calls about a late check. But many of the “walking dead” in the Scripps Howard report said their “deaths” were discovered while shopping for a cell phone, applying for a student loan, mortgage or bank account, or renting an apartment.

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