Americans are getting older and, according to Social Security records, some are getting really old. According to Social Security records, nearly 6.5 million Social Security Americans age 112 or older are still kicking.
Yet it’s doubtful so many Americans have reached such a ripe old age. As of Sept. 20, the Gerontology Research Group had confirmed only 44 people age 112 or older were living. Ten of them live in the U.S. The oldest confirmed Mainer, who died in 2008, was 110 years old.
In fact, the Social Security Administration’s inspector general concluded in March nearly all these 6.5 million supercentenarians in the U.S. were likely dead because they reported no earnings nor received Social Security benefits. What classified them as live was that their records had no listed dates of death. The inspector general confirmed only 13 cases in which the people were alive and drawing benefits.
The missing death information doesn’t just tip the age scales in Social Security Administration files. It represents a problem for many government agencies, as well as banks, insurance companies and other businesses that rely on Social Security death records to prevent possible identity theft and fraud.
Not on the Numident
Every year the Social Security Administration processes death information for about 2.8 million people; 94 percent of this information comes from family and state bureaus of vital statistics in the form of death certificates and the U.S. Treasury in the form of returned benefit payments, Social Security spokesman William Jarrett said in an email.
For instance, the Maine Office of Data, Research and Vital Statistics processes and verifies about 13,000 deaths each year and sends that information to the Social Security Administration, according to Kim Haggan, director of statistical services.
Once the Social Security Administration receives this death information, it enters that information into its electronic record-keeping system called the “Numident,” which replaced the old paper record system in 1972.
“The Social Security number remains in the Numident but is flagged as deceased so no program fraud can occur,” said Sean Brune, senior adviser to the agency’s deputy commissioner for budget, finance, quality and management.
The dead person’s record is then added to the Social Security “ death master file,” which many public- and private-sector entities use for fraud and identity theft prevention.
According to an audit by Social Security Inspector General Patrick O’Carroll, most of the 6.5 million people whose death information is missing from the Numident, and hence the death master file, were born before June 16, 1901 — more than 70 years before Social Security started using electronic records and decades before Social Security even began.
The inspector general, though, could not determine why the Numident did not have their death information.
But if the number holders never received benefits, it’s likely that the Social Security Administration never confirmed death information from these people, as the administration “do[es] not verify reports of death received on non-Social Security beneficiaries,” Jarrett said.
The absence of death information is problematic because a range of federal programs, especially public assistance programs, rely on Social Security’s death records to prevent improper benefit payments. In addition, many other entities in the public and private sectors rely on them to prevent fraud and identity theft.
Failed fraud prevention
According to the Government Accountability Office, improper payments made by a range of federal programs cost the federal government $124.7 billion in fiscal year 2014, a $19 billion increase over the previous fiscal year. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, in March called inaccurate death records a “root cause” of such improper payments.
The improper payments originated from 124 programs run by 22 agencies. Medicare and Medicaid, run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the U.S. Treasury’s Earned Income Tax Credit accounted for $80.9 billion — more than 60 percent of the entire amount.
But the consequences of missing death information stretch beyond the federal government. Missing records “could also hinder state and local government and private industry — banks, insurance companies and others — from identifying identity theft and other types of fraud,” the Social Security Administration’s inspector general said.
In fact, the inspector general found 66,920 of the 6.5 million Social Security numbers belonging to the alleged supercentenarians had been used to commit identity theft and claim $3.1 billion in wages between 2006 and 2011. A schemer had used one of these numbers 613 times.
In one case, a man opened bank accounts using several Social Security numbers, including two that belonged to people who were born in 1886 and 1893, respectively.
Because the numbers were still active in Social Security records, their use raised no red flags.
Costly mistake, costly fix
In April, U.S. Sen. Thomas Carper of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, introduced a bill to require the Social Security Administration to improve its death records so they could be used more reliably to prevent fraud and identity theft. The bill passed the committee this summer and awaits action in the full Senate.
Despite calls from the inspector general and Senate to improve Social Security death records, Brune said in testimony to the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that updating these records could be costly and time consuming.
The agency has yet to determine the cost of updating the records and the feasibility of doing so.
“We are exploring options to improve the quality of extremely old death records but do not have an estimate [of the cost],” Jarrett, the Social Security spokesman, said in an email.
Because of the age of the records, it is a significant hurdle for the agency to verify the death information, especially as the information on these records may be outdated. Many of these people and their families may have moved from the addresses they used to apply for a Social Security number a long time ago, Jarrett said.
“If we were to presume death for the 6.5 million individuals, we would likely be creating errors for some living individuals,” he said.
Already, the inspector general has turned up thousands of cases of potential identity theft involving these very records. Until policymakers settle on a method to verify that these number holders have died, their records “remain a significant void” within the death master file and a hurdle to the “goal of improving SSA’s and other federal agencies’ payment accuracy,” O’Carroll Jr. said.