What is the Social Security Administration?
The Social Security Act was passed to create a social program that would provide financial assistance to retirees, unemployed persons, and families with dependent children. The Social Security Administration was conceived in 1936 as a way to track workers’ earnings in order to compute the benefit level and entitlements that would be paid to said worker or their surviving dependents. At it’s inception, the SSA was only worried about non-agricultural employees, though that would change rapidly until almost every person in the United States was issued a Social Security Number. Most citizens now receive their SSN at the time they are born.
What is the Social Security Number?
The Social Security Number is a 9-digit number that is used to identify a specific worker and track their wage earnings. From inception to December 2008, the SSA has issued approximately 450 million Social Security Numbers. The social security number is broken up into three groups in the 000-00-0000 format. What’s with the format and why is it a useful tool for Genealogists? Well, the first three numbers are an area number. The second set is for a group number. The final set is a personally identifying serial number. Basically thousands can have the same area and group number, but that serial number is the one that tells people who you are specifically. No one has a 0000 serial number. Social Security Numbers can be found documented in many places from court documents to property records. While we’ve become more concerned with identity theft, there used to be a time that that number could be found on checks, driver’s licenses, school id’s, etc. As a genealogist, knowing that number can help you confirm that the John Smith you are talking about is your John Smith.
The area number was divided across the country and commonwealths to indicate the state that issued the number. It can’t be considered residence of the worker as many would work and live in different areas (or, as it was a new system, companies mistakenly had all their employees send their applications to a central location on the East Coast despite where the worker actually lived). Still, for the most part, an area number can often hold the clue as to where the person was when they applied for their number. In 1972, the area number was changed to indicate the ZIP code on the application itself. So at least the later applications may be more accurate as to the residence of the individual. As of June 2011, the SSA randomizes social security numbers. So going forward, the geographic information (which was only slightly accurate to begin with) will become a historical note and no longer applicable to actual numbers.
What’s so important about that area number for Genealogists? This is the coolest part of the whole number, folks. You see, the area number was assigned to the states EXCEPT for a handful of numbers that were reserved for specific purposes:
- 700-720 were reserved for railroad workers until July 1963.
- 586 was reserved for Samoa, Guam, the Philippines, Americans employed abroad by American employers and (from 1975-1979) Indochinese refugees.
- 580 was reserved for the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
- 581-584, 596-599 were also reserved for Puerto Rico.
- 577-579 was reserved for Washington D.C.
- 587-588 went to Mississippi and 589-595 to Florida when their original area numbers were used up.
- 729-733 went to the Department of Homeland Security’s EaE (Enumeration at Entry) program.
- 000, 666, 900-999 are unassigned and finding any claim to these area numbers is a blatant sign of a false number.
So by looking at the area number, you can tell where they applied (and possibly resided). If you see 715 as the start of your great uncle’s number , you can tell he was a railroad worker at least when he filed for his number. Even if you know nothing else about your relative, you now know this. If your relative has a 586, and you know they were born and raised in the mainland, you can now figure that they may have worked overseas for a time (and that means they may have border crossing documents!).
What is the SS-5?
An SS-5 is the application one fills out to receive a social security card. The application includes the first and last name of the applicant, their birthday, residence, gender, race (sometimes), and parents’ names. You can request a copy of the SS-5 of any person under FOIA, though if they are living, you will most likely be declined unless you are their guardian or have special reason why this will not be an invasion of their privacy (you can request your own file, claims and all). The SSA will search for the application for a fee of $29 ($27 if you know the SSN). Now, a word of caution: there is a legislative act that blots out the parents’ names if you cannot submit reasonable proof of death for the applicant who is not at least 100 years in age (or the number holder is not at least 120 years in age when no proof of death is provided). You can get the names if you can prove that the parents are dead. All well and good until you consider that a genealogist is usually ordering this document to get that information. Now, the statute argues that this is acceptable under the FOIA (5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(6)). The section states that information can be withheld if it is “personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” I get that if it is a recent death and the parents could reasonably be considered to be alive. That’s why they chose to restrict it for any applicant who is under 100 years in age when dead or 120 if still alive (or not proven dead). On the other hand, that number seems awfully high. Or maybe I’m just mad that I can’t get the name my grandfather put down for his father until 2027.
What is the Death Master File?
When your death is reported to the Social Security Administration, they add your name and number to the Death Master File. The death can be voluntarily reported by relatives, funeral homes or states’ health departments. Because not every death is reported to the SSA, not finding someone on the Death Master File doesn’t mean they aren’t dead. With that said, it is still 90% accurate for deaths of persons 65 and over (especially if they receive benefits).The file is updated weekly. The version offered to the public through various companies is usually called the Social Security Death Index (and comes with the warning that it may not be up to date).
Looking at the public file isn’t free. For an individual record, the NTIS (National Technical Information Service) will charge you $10. For a company to provide the most up-to-date version can cost them thousands of dollars. For a U.S., Canada or Mexico based company, the one-time purchase quarterly file costs $1,825. If they want a full year subscription it’s $3,650 (and this doesn’t count weekly update options!). For any other country, the cost is $7,245-$14,490. So if I live in the U.K. and I’m wanting to use the information in the most up-to-date DMF for a statistical survey of mortality rates across the globe based on availability of state provided pension plans (let’s just pretend), I may pay $7,245 (or £4,514) to get the latest file listing all those who have died. Ancestry.com used to provide this information as a free service. Because of the recent scrutiny of genealogy sites and how identity thieves may be using them, Ancestry.com has placed the index behind their pay membership portal and removed any person who died within the last 10 years. Remember that I can still go straight to the source and pay $10 a lookup. Heck, there’s even an unlimited lookup option for $995 (that admittedly makes Ancestry‘s year fee look like peanuts, but still less than a grand to search for anyone listed on the DMF). And there are still some genealogy sites that aren’t taking any action until the laws concerning the DMF are changed.
Who uses it?
Primarily, the SSA uses Social Security Numbers to identify an individual, track their wages, determine their benefits level and eligibility and cut off benefits when that number is added to the DMF (or begin benefits for their survivors). Government entities also use it for tracking parents that owe child support, Medicare and VA benefits, military and federal employee identification, Native American programs, identifying legal aliens, issuing bonds, providing driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations, social programs like food stamps and school lunches, federal loans, HUD program, blood donations, jury selection, tracking alimony payments and cash transactions over $10k………. Oh yeah and verifying IRS tax returns so they don’t pay out dead people! The IRS is supposed to use the DMF to confirm that people aren’t claiming children they don’t have as dependents or filing claims for the deceased. I underlined “supposed to”, because at this moment the IRS is trying to say they don’t have the money or the manpower to stay on top of the fraud. That doing so would mean people would have to wait longer for their tax returns. I’ll get more into my opinion on this in the conclusion, but I want to be very clear right here: Banks, employers and the government are supposed to be using the DMF to STOP FRAUD AND IDENTITY THEFT.
Employers use the SSN via the CBSV (Consent Based Social Security Number Verification Service). The purpose of this system is to take the name and social security number you provide upon hiring to verify that they both match the records the SSA has. The system doesn’t provide any information about you, but will list a “Yes” if the name and number match, a “No” if they don’t, and a “Deceased” if you’re supposed to be dead. This is to confirm you actually get credit for the wages you turn over to the SSA as well as ensure that a person’s identity (whether they be dead or alive) isn’t being used fraudulently. Any financial institution that creates accounts and extends credit also uses the SSN to confirm that the person in front of them is who they say they are. Card companies should be checking the DMF to make sure dead people aren’t opening lines of credit.
Researchers studying epidemiological, mortality, retirement, disability, or even death reporting use these files. When using other death indexes like the NDI (National Death Index) that are created by death certificates, the DMF can be a control group. Any genealogist can tell you how misinformed the informant on a death certificate can be. Since the SSA gets the information from the actual person (or the parent at birth), the information is considered more accurate. The DMF also covers deaths prior to the start of the NDI in 1979. As it stands, the DMF is still the best for any researcher wanting a statistical analysis that will cover 1937-present. And hospitals and researchers will use the DMF to track study subjects (which is a good way to ensure a subject that doesn’t report in isn’t just forgetful). The NDI can be over a year behind in records, which can hamper the accuracy and timeliness of research.
And of course, us lowly genealogists…… including forensic genealogists who, as the lovely Legal Genealogist pointed out, are “the folks who need access to help in legal proceedings, in repatriation of the remains of American service members, and so much more.” Even if I’m willing to give up the last 2-10 years (for the sake of privacy of living relatives and whatnot), there are laws being proposed that will shut the whole thing down! Being one of the most comprehensive death files out there, especially for elderly relatives, this is a boon for a genealogist to find people within the last 80 years. We have so many privacy restrictions already that sometimes the only thing that will tell me if I even have a shot of finding a relative alive or not is if they show up on that index. Why take that away from people trying to connect with their relatives? Why stop adoptees from taking a known name and at least finding out if any possibility of a reunion has long passed. Why restrict siblings from finding each other after a family quarrel? Why keep anyone from knowing their grandparents/great grandparents? Why is it that we’ll punish the dead for us ineffectively protecting the living.
What does Congress want to do with it?
Approximately 8-9 million people a year are victims of identity theft. Here are some facts from a February 2012 FTC report: Government documents/benefits fraud makes up 27% of identity theft reports (the largest portion). It has increased 11% since 2009. Of the 27% total government/benefits fraud, tax or wage related fraud made up 24.1%. Government benefits, fraudulent driver’s licenses and other forged government documents are that remaining 2.9%,
Identity theft as a whole made up 15% of the fraud reports to the FTC in the 2011 calendar year. 50% of payments are wire transfers (up from 20% in 2009). 8% are consumers under the age of 19 (that’ll be important later). 15% are 60 years old and up. Since 2009, approximately a quarter of the complaints have been lodged by people in the 20-29 age range (and that number stays steady for each year with little variance). As a consumer ages, the percentage drops. According to the report, the IRS only filed 28 complaints itself in 2011. That’s less than 1% (Zero in 2009 and 2010). Most of the reports are coming straight from the consumer after finding out that their identity has been used fraudulently. After all these scary statistics, I should point out that Identity Theft Products are also on this complaint list (for not working) and that there was a February 2012 Consumer Reports about the fear-mongering going on to create a need for products that aren’t delivering the security they promise. I’d also like to point out that I found no clear statistic that stated how many dead people are having their identity stolen. I found individual cases and anecdotes, but no concrete proof that this is the large problem that I’ve been told in recent news stories it’s supposed to be. Congress loves to parade around the stories of parents of dead children finding out their precious baby was fraudulently claimed on someone else's taxes. But identity thefts for persons under 19 was what again? 8 percent (19,563 out of 248,538). How many of those are deceased children isn't really specified. And even deceased elderly relatives aren't where the largest numbers of fraud come from. It's the just-starting-out 20 year olds. Those who are capable of making mistakes with their own documents. I was able to find an article by the Legal Genealogist (really my go-to gal for Legalese) stating the problem with identity theft involving the dead was 1/10th of 1% of the problem. The living folks that are being conned into giving this information or are unaware of how to protect their information (twenty year olds, I'm looking your way) are what we need to focus on right now.
Because of how the SSA is set up, there would need to be a change in the law concerning the SSA to restrict access to it. And that’s what Congress is up to right now. Several bills have been introduced to reduce or outright ban access to anyone but Federal or State agencies. Congressman Sam Johnson has proposed one such bill (“Keeping IDs Safe Act of 2011”). That bill would remove access from anyone outside of Federal or State agencies needing to access records of deceased individuals. There are others who are proposing that records of the recently deceased (from 2-10 years) be removed from the public files. There are so many voices in this arena (and my post is now a book) that I can only say that ya’ll need to get to reading some of this information. I love the posts the Legal Genealogist has been doing and have linked a couple to this post. Get her in an RSS feed and really pay attention to the news surrounding these proposals. Your identity is at stake!
Now, there have been some changes to that public file already. November 2011, 4.2 million records were removed to comply with protected state death records from the public version of the DMF (the aforementioned SSDI). Basically, since the states were exempted from FOIA in the law asking them to provide death information to the SSA, they cannot be required to publicly share their information simply because they gave it to the SSA. The SSA can independently verify the death and then add the information themselves, but they usually only take the extra step for those individuals who received benefits or have surviving relatives who are benefits eligible. There was also a change to what is displayed in the index. The state/county of residence, ZIP code, last residence and ZIP code, and lump sum payment fields were all removed from the display. Because of the state exemption, the SSA estimates 1 million deaths each year will not be disclosed.
Who is Perholtz and what is FOIA?
FOIA stands for Freedom Of Information Act. Basically, this is the law says that we all have the right to obtain federal records (with a few exemptions). There is no requirement that the person asking for the records be a citizen of the U.S. If you wish to look up records on yourself, you can. You need to provide proof that you are who you say you are to ensure they aren’t giving away any information that is private. You can request records from any agency as long as you do so in writing and make a “reasonable” description of the information you seek.
What exemptions to this law are there?
- Material classified as pertaining to national security by an Executive Order.
- Internal personnel rules and practices of an agency.
- Information prohibited from disclosure by another federal law.
- Business trade secrets.
- Communications that are protected by legal privileges (Client/Attorney for example)
- Anything that would invade the personal privacy of another (you can’t use the federal government to stalk your ex).
- Law enforcement information IF it would interfere with enforcement proceedings, hinder fair trial, expose a confidential informant, disclose an individual’s personal information, or endanger someone’s life.
- Information about the supervision of financial institutions
- Geological information on wells.
- There are also two law enforcement exclusions that prevent FOIA from hindering an on-going investigation if the subject of the investigation doesn’t know about it or disclosing informant information if the informant’s status hasn’t been officially confirmed.
- The FBI also has a special exclusion for classified intelligence, counterintelligence, and international terrorism records.
Ronald J. Perholtz filed a lawsuit in 1978 under FOIA (Perholtz v. Stanford G. Ross [SSA], Civ. No. 78-2385 and 78-2386, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, 1980). He wished to have the death information released in order to prove pension fraud (just in case you wondered, he did prove fraud). The court decided that the dead didn’t have reasonable expectations of privacy and therefore the information could be released to Perholtz. Because of the number of requests the SSA received, it decided to make a public death file in order to decrease the FOIA requests (and save time and money in the long run). If Congress is able to restrict the DMF to government agencies, the number of FOIA requests will increase. No one believes that the courts will not require the information to be released upon reasonable request, so the DMF restrictions that Congress is asking for would only increase administrative and legal costs for the SSA. And as stated above, this will only hamper the work of honest individuals and companies without making our identities any safer.
Why should you (and everyone you know) care?
I want to start this last section by pointing out that at NO TIME was the SSN supposed to become a universal identifier. Since the beginning of the SSA, the administration has argued against using it for identification purposes and has flat out said that the system simply isn’t set up to be used as such. And yet, that’s what the government, businesses, financial institutions and everyone else have chosen for the end-all be-all of identification. Even today, those 9 little numbers aren’t secure enough to hold the gates to our identity. Yet, instead of coming up with a better system, we’re going to remove the public file that is designed to protect us and those institutions that provide us benefits from fraud.
In testimonies given before Congress and interviews to the press, the representatives of both the SSA and the IRS say that they have neither the finances nor the manpower to handle checking the DMF to prevent fraud. The IRS says that checking every SSN against the DMF would take so much time that returns would take longer. Is there no computer system that could be made to mirror the one employers can use? A simple, “yes, no, dead” code that would check the number? Considering the push for electronic filing, I don’t see how the name and SSN fields can’t be run for a match before confirming. Heck, couldn’t that be part of the tax software like H&R Block or something? I have to put in my name and address and phone number. I already give them my SSN. Why can’t there be a minute where the computer checks the DMF to make sure I’m not dead? They are supposed to be checking that!
The SSA has even said that it isn’t part of their job description to maintain the DMF. Well, in the strictest sense, no, but remember when I said it was created to reduce costs and manpower from all the FOIA requests? Remember the FOIA section above? Yeah, that’s what they’re predicting! They’ll need more money and people to handle the inevitable FOIA requests! I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but really? It all comes back to each agency saying that they are so bad at their jobs that they need more to do their jobs. If I’m bad at my job, I get fired. But then again, I don’t work in government.
Then there is a NY Times article that has several researchers stating that shutting down the DMF will NOT stop identity theft. Financial institutions are saying it will be HARDER to stop identity theft. So here we are, our house has a leak and our plumber wants to fix every pipe but the ones that are actually leaking. We are on the verge of greater problems in identity theft, higher research and government costs, and punishing all the good people in the world for the sake of pretending to stop the wicked.
But Congress wants us to please think of the children!