On August 22, 2010, Judy Rivers found out she was dead.
She had gone to open a bank account, 14 months after a serious car accident that had come not long after she’d lost her home and all her savings, forcing her to live out of that very car.
Throughout this period, she'd applied for apartments and jobs, but kept getting turned down — often for reasons she couldn’t understand. Responses included, “could not confirm information;” “information inaccurate;” or “income cannot be verified.”
She assumed that being out of the workforce while caring for her ailing parents for nearly two years was the problem. But not a single place would accept her. So Rivers, then in her mid-50s, had been forced to take odd jobs and live with friends and acquaintances.
“Social Security Number deactivated _____ 2008 due to death,” said the piece of paper the teller slipped to Rivers, folded over so that only that single line showed, when she tried to open the bank account.
As she would eventually learn, at some point that year, Rivers was inadvertently placed on the the Death Master File (DMF), a list of 100 million deceased Americans maintained by the Social Security Administration (SSA) to figure out to whom it should pay benefits. It contains their names, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, and until recently, their last known state and zip code.
By law, the agency is required to make a version of the list available to the public, and it is not illegal to publish it. Banks and hospitals use it to prevent fraud, and a handful of genealogists use it in their work.
But although SSA makes it known that it cannot vouch for the accuracy of the list due to lack of resources, it is used by institutions all over the country to make life-altering decisions about customers like Rivers.
Which is why she has spent the past five years working to track down all the places that say she is dead, while advocating for reforming how the DMF is used, and helping others who have run into problems like hers. She plans to publish a book, "How I Survived the Death Master File," in May.
“You literally become a cyber-ghost as of that moment [you’re listed],” she said. “It spreads through the financial system. It permeates down to the driver’s license bureau, all databases through which any transaction is made, medical insurance companies — the information keeps spreading exponentially. It’s like a propagating hydra — its tentacles just keep going out further and further.” She says she’s never learned how her name got into the database.
Finally, after thousands of people like Rivers getting mistakenly added to the list over the years, the government appears to be getting a handle on the problem. Geographic information is no longer added to published versions so as to limit the amount of personal identifiable information that makes it to the public sphere. There is also now a more rigorous approval process to receive a copy of the list, and SSA is contemplating initiating periodic audits of subscribers.
But Rivers, who told her story at a Senate panel on the DMF last month, says the information is out there forever once it’s published, and there is no guarantee that a given agency will update their lists, even though the National Technical Information Service, which administers the DMF’s sales on behalf of SSA, demands this as a condition of their receiving the list. As recently as one month ago, she was yet again turned down for another job offer. She declined to name the company she interviewed with but said they couldn’t verify her information despite her providing them with extensive documentation of her situation.
“It’s a matter now of, do you tell them before or after,” she said. “If I tell them before, I don’t get called. If I tell them afterward, they become disinterested.”
Cancel These Funerals
Tom Alciere, a genealogist, publishes the site SortedbyName.com, along with a handful of other sites containing names and Social Security numbers legal to list. I was able to find Social Security Numbers for a bunch of my dead relatives on there — again, it is totally legal for him to do this, thanks to an obscure court case that came when former U.S. Postal Service accountant Ronald Perholtz realized Social Security information could be useful in preventing the shipment of pension checks to deceased retirees. (Perholz himself later was convicted of fraud.)
Alciere is well aware of incidents like Rivers’. He also runs a site called CancelTheseFunerals.com, which until recently documented the hundreds of cases a year of individuals who mistakenly end up as dead.
He says the Death Master File in itself is not the problem, but rather the idea that someone’s Social Security number is also the primary means by which that person gets authorization to do things in their daily lives. And yet Americans have come to take this for granted.
“It’s so common that everybody knows what ‘last four of your social’ means.”
Sai, a security researcher (he legally had his name changed), has studied the issue and agrees, noting that it is much more difficult to change your Social Security Number than any other piece of personal information — and is equally as accessible.
“It's like having your street address also be the combination to your front door lock,” he said.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center, an information security watchdog group, has called on the National Research Council to develop "alternative, less intrusive means of identification."
20,000 Walking Dead
During his testimony, SSA's inspector general, Patrick O’Carroll said there is still room for improvement in addressing DMF errors, noting that in a 2008 report they’d found more than 20,000 individuals over a three year period who had been incorrectly declared dead.
“Erroneous death entries can lead to benefit termination—and government underpayments—and cause severe financial hardship and distress to affected individuals,” he said.
Rivers also says there needs to be a much simpler way to than to have to wait what can be weeks for the social security administration to — and that’s assuming an individual figures out what has happened.
And she says there needs to be much more comprehensive way of making sure DMF subscribers are making updates to their DMF lists alongside SSA’s.
“The DMF stole five years of my life from me,” she said.
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.