Social Security Death Master File access hearing

This morning (2 February 2012) the U. S. House of Representatives, Ways and Means Subcommittee is holding a hearing concerning the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File (commonly called the “Social Security Death Index”). A few cases of identity theft and fraud have caused the U. S. Congress to favor the closing of this valuable resource. Several other blogs have discussed this issue, and I would invite readers to read these other blogs:

I would like to take this time to respond briefly to the issue at large as well as the specific written testimony that has now been posted on the Ways and Means Committee website.

In general, I would like to make a comparison to what the U. S. Congress is attempting to do. Since the mid-19th century, there have been documented cases of identity theft and fraud by those who would go to cemeteries and copy information from headstones. Closing the Death Master File (“SSDI”) is akin to making cemeteries restricted ground, inaccessible to the general public. Except that there are far fewer documented cases of fraud occasioned by the Death Master File than by headstones.

I would like to invite my readers to take the time to read the written testimony submitted by those invited to address the committee:

I will respond to this testimony directly in the coming days, in separate blog posts.

13 thoughts on “Social Security Death Master File access hearing

  1. I would like to first address the fact that this is not “a few cases” of identity theft/fraud. The childhood cancer community it being singularly targetted by unscrupulous criminals. Rather than simply turn this into an emotional issue though, it is clear that this type of fraud and criminal activity is costing the government, i.e. you and me as tax payers millions of dollars a year.

    With this being stated, nobody is trying to close the death master file. To the contrary, those who truly utilize it to prevent fraud should continue to have access. However, to post the social security numbers of people who are recently deceased is a dangerous practice that is clearly allowing this type of theft. And please do not call it anything but theft. There is simply no reason why you would need the social security number of a child who is recently deceased.

    So, I invite you to review my testimony. My family suffered this crime, and we suffer with the grief caused by the loss of our daughter. Your research can be conducted without the presence of my daughter’s personal information, and the personal information of the thousands of other families who lose children every year.

    • If the Death Master File was a criminal’s source of information, why didn’t the bankers check the Social Security number against the latest edition of Death Master File? Bankers are far too careless, in allowing anybody to request a credit card over the phone, rather than require an ID.

  2. Michael, thank you for helping to spread the word in the genealogical community. I watched the hearings this morning. There are several issues that I would like to address.

    The majority of witnesses blamed SSDI as the source of identity theft that involved fraudulent use of SSNs. However, not one of the witnesses cited a single documented source that proved a specific fraud had been committed as a result of access to the SSDI. If, as testimony was presented, some 300,000 cases of SSN fraud were reported, no statistics were provided as to the source of any of those frauds. Recently a Nigerian was arrested in south Texas on fraud charges, He simply made up names and numbers. A prominent genealogist has related that his living mother is currently resolving the use of her SSN by no fewer than 12 illegal immigrant workers who simply chose a number.

    Fraudulent use of SSNs have resulted from unscrupulous persons “harvesting” through access to private medical records, insurance records, funeral records, college/educational records, bank records, credit applications, home loan applications, theft from mailboxes – virtually every source imagineable in which some dishonest person has access to our private information. Not to mention the untold number of hacking stories we’ve seen in the media lately. Also, sometimes mistakes just happen – a person writes a number incorrectly on a form, a data entry keyer strikes the wrong key.

    Twice during testimony it was stated as fact that entire addresses of the deceased were available to the public in the online SSDI. This is patently incorrect. City, county, state and zip code of the last address for which benefits or information were reported – IF reported – may be included. In many cases, this is not even the city of home address for the deceased; for example, the city in which the funeral director received a SS death benefit or the city in which a relative who served as custodian of the person’s affairs.

    One witness stated that the genalogical community was over reacting, that almost all the data found in the SSDI was available elsewhere. That is, perhaps, a half truth. Yes, other agencies or repositories may have original or derivative records – IF you know where to look for them. You don’t know where to look for them if you don’t know where the family/individuals moved to over two or three generations. Many states do not publish death indexes. Often the SSDI is the only published source availabe at a distance from the record repository.

    I am a forensic genealogist. I am most certainly NOT over reacting when I state that loss of access to the SSDI will be devastating to my small, woman-owned busines but also to the clients I serve. A quick check of the first Navy case in which I indentified DNA donors who helped in the repatriation of a Naval pilot killed in Vietnam found that the research used SSDI 20+ times, including once each to see if the wife and children were still alive. In many cases the SSDI is the only tool I have to follow migration of my WWII sailors’ families towards the west during the 1930s and through the 1940-50s when census records were not available. If I don’t know where they died – I cannot order the obituary to identify next of kin, or the death certificate to ID parents and go back one more generation looking for the right DNA line.

    A recent probate case report cited SSDI 40 times in identifying the two moeities of the intestate decedent. Additional uses of SSDI in that case were not cited in the report. A recent capital mitigation case used the SSDI 10 times just in the preliminary overview of potential research. One case in which I worked for hundreds of heirs in an oil royalty case used the SSDI more than 200 times.

    Yes, the SSDI was set up to prevent fraud. It is used thousands of time daily for that purpose by others than specifically named agencies. Attorneys, title companies, oil/gas landmen, human resource departments and any more depend upon it.

    Records of deceased children absolutely must be protected. However, virtually every witness today advocated removing the SSDI from public access. Attorneys, title companies, oil/gas landmen, human resource departments, forensic genealogists, coroner’s and more are ALSO the public who use this resource.

  3. Sir,

    I am sure that all of the genealogical community sympathizes with your family’s tragedy, and with anyone who has suffered due to identity theft.

    However there is no reason to take a maximalist approach to an issue that can be solved with a less restrictive solution. Genealogists, both hobbyist and professionals, many of whom do legal related work, do have a need to use death information. The SSDI is vitally important to researching the most recent century in attempting to work forward and trace one’s more distant cousins in order to be able to contact them for information possibly passed down in those lines.

    The SSDI is all the more important because so many states do not have a death index, let alone one that is publicly accessible. So for instance if I were trying to trace a great-uncle who moved to another unknown state, I first need a death date and place of death before I can attempt to track down an obituary and get the names of 2nd cousins that I could contact. But without the SSDI, I would have to try states at random, many of whom will only search a very short range like three years.

    But for the most part we do not need the social security numbers themselves for the most recent deaths. They are however required for deaths longer ago in order to be able to order certain records from the Social Security Administration and to distinguish between same named individuals.

    Would you think a reasonable compromise would be for organizations like commercial or non-profit genealogical concerns to be able to publish the SS Master Death File online, but with the social security numbers for the past decade redacted, and with restricted access to legal and financial concerns that might need such information? That is, do you think there any harm in posting the fact that someone has died now, and only the social security numbers after ten years has passed?



  4. I’ll keep this one short. Ironically, just as I completed the above posting, the niece of a USS Oklahoma sailor returned my call left on her voicemail. Her mother was the only sister of the serviceman. I found the sister in the SSDI, clear across the country from the rest of the family. The sister died last year. With the death date I located an online obituary that provided the niece’s married name. Thank goodness it was unique enough that a phone numer could be found. This family has worked for 70 years for an accounting and the proper burial of this serviceman. That may now be possible because an mtDNA line was identified. This particularly difficult Navy case has been researched now for 5 months. I lucked out with a possibe 2nd married name and knew the birrth date to search SSDI.

  5. The government gives anyone who wants it the social security security numbers of every living person on Medicare. Our Medicare numbers are our social security numbers, printed on the Medicare cards we have to hand over to any staff member of a medical provider who requests it,.

  6. Mr. Agin,

    I am sorry that your family has suffered the loss of a child. I am further sorry that in addition to the loss of her life, your family is also suffering through the nightmares of identity theft. I am curious, though, how did you come to the determination that the fraud was perpetuated by someone who had access to her information from the SSDI?

    I agree that no one needs access to your daughter’s SS information…yet. One day, however, after you are gone, or maybe before, a researcher may need to fit together the pieces of a puzzle that might include your daughter. Aside from that, though, you are not asking that just your daughter’s information be removed. You are wanting to remove the whole shebang, which is a vital tool used to solve many puzzles every day.

    I am a volunteer for an organization called Unclaimed Persons. This is an organization that tries to find next of kin for people who have died with no one to claim them. SSDI information, including the whole SS number, is an imperative part of what we volunteers use. Often times we have little or no information about a person except for a name and date/place of death. We use the SS information because it tells us where that person’s number was issued, which helps us focus our search. We also use this number to differentiate between other people with the same name, and determine kinship of siblings based on proximity.

    For familial research, access to the SSDI allows people access to otherwise unavailable family ancestors. For example, I have a great grandfather who was considered to have abandoned the family. No one knew much about him, but the family lore stated that he had been abandoned on a church door step as an infant. If this is true, then ordering a birth certificate would not be the best route, as it might not exist. But ordering his SS application will reveal to me the name of the parents he grew up with. That will allow me to know my heritage, and will also allow me to figure out whether or not the family lore is true. Proving the matter either way will allow my family and I to have a better understanding of who this man was, and allow some closure for those who were affected by his actions.

    Heir finders and other services utilize the information on SSDI files for the same reasons as above. This is a vital tool that helps more often, if at all, than it hinders. (As mentioned before, where is the proof that the SSDI was the culprit in any of the fraud cases?)

    There are so many ways out there for people to gain access, easily, to personal information. The fight should be more about verification as a preventive measure rather than restriction to access, because the fraud will persist without a hiccup no matter what sources you take away. All that will be accomplished by the removal or modification of the SSDI is a hindrance of legitimate research that is a benefit to so many.

    It is my hope that through your pain you will see the truth in this matter and reconsider your position.

    Angela Kraft

    For more information about Unclaimed Persons, please visit

  7. Mr. Agin,

    I am counsel for the Federation of Genealogical Societies and a member of the Records Preservation and Access Committee, a joint committee of FGS, the National Genealogical Society, and the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies which seeks to address such issues on behalf of the genealogical community.

    I would welcome a chance to visit with you at your earliest convenience. My contact information was left on the contact template for your office this afternoon.


    Frederick E. Moss

  8. Until I began researching my family background, I had no family!! Other people would talk about their relatives and generations back to the Mayflower. I would think isn’t that something–guess what I go back to the Mayflower and then some. What joy I felt to be able to trace those generations. It is a on going study which can last a lifetime. I a still missing those Vikings. Why do we allow people to take away our interest in research?Do law makers think on what laws they are enacting? I am grateful to have done the research before another door closes on my joy and freedom.
    Other countries seem to keep track of the people that enter their countries. Are we in this country, so stupid,lazy and inept at running our government that we allow the illegals to come into our country and take over. What have we become? Are we trading freedoms for security. We seem to have the best government that money can buy. I think there is something rotten in Denmark.

  9. Pingback: Stop ID Theft Now and Save the SSDI | 1 Ancestry 2 Little Time

  10. Every sandwich shop where you apply for a job you give your Social Security number, and the dishwasher can probably walk into the office when the boss is away and steal your ID. The solution is to require an actual ID and not just a number. Repeal the fee for a passport and more folks will get a passport.

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