Inspector General Discusses Death Data with “60 Minutes,” Congress

Beyond the Numbers

Wednesday, March 18, 2015
Posted by: 
The Communications Division
(Inspector General Patrick O'Carroll appeared on the March 15 edition of "60 Minutes.")


If you caught “60 Minutes” on Sunday, you saw Inspector General Patrick O’Carroll discuss the completeness and uses of SSA’s Death Master File–or the DMF.

The DMF is an extract of Social Security records—it lists people with Social Security numbers for whom SSA has recorded a date of death. Government and private companies match their financial, credit, payment, and other records against the DMF, to make sure they aren’t doing business with deceased people. Thus, when someone dies but that information doesn’t end up on the DMF, opportunities exist for payment errors and fraud.

Recently, we learned that a man had opened multiple bank accounts with Social Security numbers that belonged to people who were born over 112 years ago. It was safe to assume these numberholders were deceased; as of September 2014, the Gerontology Research Group reported that only 42 people worldwide had reached age 112.

Digging deeper, we identified about 6.5 million people over 112 whose deaths were not recorded on their Social Security number records. We did find some of their deaths recorded on SSA’s payment records—none of them were receiving benefits—but because the deaths weren’t on the Social Security number records, these 6.5 million people were not in the DMF.

From these records, we identified thousands of instances where someone else may have been using these Social Security numbers. For example, we found over $3 billion in earnings were reported to SSA using 67,000 of these “aged” SSNs.  

As discussed on “60 Minutes,” these inaccuracies represent a significant void in DMF data; we recommended that SSA resolve these discrepancies.

SSA also has to make sure that it processes death reports for beneficiaries quickly and accurately, so it can terminate benefits and limit overpayments.

In 2013, we found that SSA paid $31 million to about 1,500 people with death information on their Social Security number record—but not on their benefit record. In many of these cases, SSA received an electronic State death record, but its system did not automatically record this information on the person’s benefit record, so the payments continued.   

The “60 Minutes” feature also addressed deceased payee fraud, which we’ve discussed in this space before. Last year, we investigated about 630 people who stole the Social Security benefits of someone who had died. By pursuing these cases, we achieved $55 million in recoveries and savings for SSA.

For example, we looked into the case of a woman from Washington State, who SSA knew was near 100 years old and was unable to contact. Our investigation revealed the woman died in 1989, and for 23 years, her son in Seattle concealed her death. For years, he forged her name and cashed in on $280,000 of her Social Security benefits. In September 2013, a judge sentenced the man to 10 months in prison and ordered him to repay the full amount.

Unfortunately, family members may not be eager to report a loved one’s death and stop Social Security benefit payments. Therefore, if a death goes unreported by funeral homes or State agencies, SSA could continue making benefit payments to deceased individuals, sometimes for years. We are working with SSA on initiatives to identify this fraud and pursue criminal prosecutions and recovery of the funds.

The day after “60 Minutes” aired, Inspector General O’Carroll discussed these issues with the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

At the Congressional hearing, the Inspector General made the following points:

  • SSA must maintain complete and accurate death data, to help prevent improper payments;
  • SSA must work to keep living people from mistakenly ending up on the DMF; and
  • the OIG is committed to pursuing cases of deceased payee fraud, to generate significant SSA recoveries and to deter others from committing this crime.

As explained on TV and on Capitol Hill, complex issues surround death reporting on local, state, and Federal levels. And, as the Inspector General said this week, we’ll keep working with SSA and Congress to develop solutions that improve the government’s death data and payment accuracy.