Whistleblower: Life after ‘death’ is a bureaucratic nightmare

  • Article by: JANE FRIEDMANN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 22, 2013 - 9:15 AM
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At age 84, Gloria Bofferding is very much alive and well. But the Minnetonka woman found herself having to persuade the Social Security Administration, her late husband's pension administrator and a hospital that she wasn't dead.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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 Since February, Gloria Bofferding has spent a fair amount of time convincing people she’s not dead. It has been harder than you’d think.

A California crematorium mistakenly notified the Social Security Administration (SSA) that Bofferding had passed away Feb. 13 and no longer needed her retirement rewards.

She has plenty of company. According to two audits by Social Security’s Office of the Inspector General, about 1,000 people are declared deceased before their time in the United States every month, wreaking all kinds of havoc when benefits cease, bank accounts close, credit cards applications are denied and identity thieves muscle in.

Bofferding, who’s 84 and lives in Minnetonka, discovered the bad news in her February bank statement, which showed her Social Security check deposited and three days later being debited from her account.

In a call to her bank, Bofferding found out what the federal government had already told the bank and what anyone with Internet access could have verified. She was bureaucratically dead.

“Everyone including my son thought this was extremely funny,” Bofferding said. “I didn’t, because of all the bureaucracy involved and you never know when it will end.”

The extent of the problem

About 2.5 million deaths are reported to the SSA each year. From July 2006 to January 2009, an average of 838 people per month erroneously made it onto the agency’s death list. That number grew to 1,018 per month between May 2007 and April 2010.

In 2011, Scripps Howard News Service obtained copies of the federal government’s Death Master File from 1998, 2008 and 2011. Its analysis found 31,931 Americans listed as deceased in either of the first two years and revived à la Lazarus in 2011 after the SSA corrected the errors.

In 1978, a Florida man successfully sued under the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to death information collected by the SSA, including names, addresses, dates of birth and Social Security numbers. That information, errors and all, can now be accessed by anyone with an Internet connection willing to pay the fee.

While the information has legitimate uses by banks, pension funds and government agencies in the prevention of fraud or overpayments, the SSA acknowledges it aids identity thieves.

The undead also make up a small percentage of the 12 million people whose identities are stolen yearly, according to Eva Velasquez, CEO of San Diego-based Identity Theft Resource Center.

“But I’m sure each one of those tens of thousands are traumatized by having to go through the experience,” Velasquez said. “It’s uncomfortable knowing that information is out there and it’s public.”

She suggests that those wrongly placed on the dead list monitor their credit reports and financial statements.

President Obama’s fiscal-year 2014 budget includes a proposal to delay the release of data to the public for three years following the person’s inclusion in the Death Master File.

Whistleblower’s requests to the Social Security Administration to explain how errors tend to make it into the list went unanswered.

But in an April 26 letter to Sen. Amy Klobuchar, an SSA employee thought that Bofferding’s wrong designation may have been the result of “a cross referred number of the deceased spouse.” Bofferding’s husband of 55 years died two years ago.

Dealing with the fallout

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