Social Security Administration mistakenly declares Kansas woman dead

LYNDON, Kan. - You may feel perfectly healthy when you suddenly receive some unnerving news. You have been declared dead, at least according to the Social Security Administration.  

Thousands of people across the country have discovered this news, making it impossible for them to get a loan, a credit card or a job.

Do you have a burial plan?

When Patricia and Ken Jennings filed their income tax this year, they discovered a big problem. The Lyndon, Kan., couple learned the Social Security Administration had declared Patricia deceased. 

"I got a phone call from my husband and he jokingly says 'honey do you have a burial plan?' I said 'what?' He says, 'well apparently you died,'" Patricia Jennings recalled.

Jennings uses a guide dog to help her with balance issues caused by illness. Other than that, she appears healthy. 

The Social Security Administration admits to making the mistake. In a letter to Jennings, the agency writes, "Our records incorrectly showed you as deceased with a date of death of April 1, 1990." The letter does not explain how the mistake happened or why it was not discovered until this year.

The Jennings started to notice problems soon after learning of the mistake. They could not file their taxes or collect a return. Patricia Jennings said she also has had trouble collecting disability.

"I was so mad. I was really mad," she said. 

The Jennings are not alone.

The Social Security Administration collects information on dead people and places it in what's called the "Death Master File".

Our reporting partners with Scripps Howard News Service last year examined three years worth of federal death records from 1998, 2008 and 2011. They found 31,931 Americans listed as dead in the file when they were actually alive. 

In Kansas, 147 people have been wrongly declared dead. The number is higher in Missouri at 453 people.

The Death Master File was created in 1980 at the request of business interest as a way to prevent fraud. If you wind up in the file, your private information is exposed online. The file is available to any company or anyone who pays to access it.

"This is not an error that's minor. This is an error that can cause serious financial harm to consumers," said Carmen Balber, the director of Consumer Watchdog, a consumer advocacy group.  

According to SHNS, the DMF is shared throughout the government and among credit, banking and other private businesses. 

"We certainly think that the Social Security Administration exposing this sensitive information online violates good sense," Balber said. 

Problems when declared dead

Trying to be among the living when declared dead is not easy. Just ask Judy Rivers of Jasper, Alabama. 

"It's just been one thing right after another since I found out that I was dead," Rivers said without breaking a smile. 

Rivers has been denied credit, jobs and even her innocence. Police took her into custody once when she used her debit card because they suspected she had stolen someone else's identity. 

"When I used the debit card, unfortunately the police were called, and they took me to the police station because they thought it was an identity theft," Rivers said. 

The Social Security Administration admits mistakes due to federal workers' "inadvertent keying errors." The agency says one out of 200 entries is false due to human error. 

Hard to get off the Death File

Patricia Jennings said she went to her local Social Security office to correct the error but got the runaround. It was not until a Topeka news station connected her with Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins office that she got action.

Jennings received a letter from the Social Security office in Emporia recently which states, "After meeting with you in person and obtaining proper identification, we were able to remove the incorrect death information from our records on August 21, 2012."

"If I had been dead that long, I would of been a heck of a lot thinner," Jennings said with a laugh.  

What can you do?

If the Social Security Administration has listed you as dead, you need to contact the agency immediately. Ask for documentation that the mistake has been fixed.  

Contact SSA at 800-772-1213 or find the Social Security office nearest you by going to its website. You can also click on this link to find a local office

It is also a good practice to check your credit report on a regular basis. You can check your report for free once a year at Annual Credit Report

You can also search the Death Master File. The genealogy site makes it available online. 

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