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
In February, Bofferding told a bank employee that “I’m obviously not dead,” but the woman was unable to provide any guidance. So Bofferding called the SSA “and yes, I was dead, according to them,” she said. A Social Security employee told her the California crematorium made the erroneous report, Bofferding said. There appears to be no death certificate currently filed with the state of California, according to Matt Conens, a California Department of Public Health spokesman.
“The manager at my apartment complex put my name on the Internet and it came up that I had died and, you know, if you wanted to say anything nice about me you could add [a comment to] my [online] obituary,” Bofferding said.
The SSA sent her a form to fill out, get notarized and send back. When she heard no more, she called them again. They suggested she visit the local office in Bloomington and make a statement. “I’m alive — living and not deceased,” was all she wrote on the form.
Her March bank statement was a repeat of the month before and then came two letters from the SSA, both dated April 15 and arriving the same day. “One said I was not going to get those [back] checks, the second one said I was going to,” Bofferding said. The payments were later credited to her account and her April statement contained no unwelcome debits.
But her problems were not over. In a trip to urgent care, she was told by a hospital employee that she was uninsured. And then she got a bill saying the same thing. “In all this, I was so upset,” she said. “I called and told them I was insured.” The SSA letter that promised a redeposit of her debited checks also declared her Medicare coverage resumed retroactively. She’s received no further medical bills.
Her late husband’s pension fund administrator also doubted Bofferding’s survival after checking the Death Master File. A letter from the administrator required another visit to the notary public.
A search of the SSA’s Death Master File found no listing for Bofferding under her name or Social Security number.
Unless there’s more red tape, reading a book, walking in the woods and plinking out a song on her upright piano will give Bofferding all the confirmation she needs that life goes on.