How the OIG Helps SSA Improve Death Data and Payment Accuracy

Beyond the Numbers

Tuesday, May 30, 2017
Posted by: 
The Communications Division

Improving the accuracy and completeness of SSA’s death information is integral to preventing improper payments. 

The Social Security Act requires SSA to match States’ death records against SSA payment records to identify and prevent erroneous payments after death.  SSA also matches death records from other Federal, State and local agencies.

The OIG has aided SSA in this effort over the years.  In our audit work, we have identified millions of dollars in improper payments by matching various death records against SSA payment records.  

Our auditors continued this work in the recent report, Match of California Death Information Against SSA Records.  We found that California death information was not always in SSA’s records, nor was recorded information always accurate.  The missing and inaccurate information resulted in nearly $5 million in improper payments.   

Take, for example, a California man who died in 1973.  His half-brother assumed his identity, and 18 years later fraudulently applied for disability benefits as the deceased.  He died in 2009, but for several years, SSA—unaware of his death—continued to pay benefits totaling nearly $300,000.  This scenario, and others like it, illustrate the significance of having accurate death information in SSA’s records to curtail erroneous and fraudulent payments.  

Payment Record Matches  

For this audit, we acquired California’s death reports from 1970 to 2004 for about 7.5 million people who died over the 34-year-span.  We then matched that data against SSA’s payments records and found 83 matches, meaning 83 cases in which SSA was making payments to a person listed as deceased in California’s records.   

Nearly half of the matches are potentially fraud cases.  Although many are still under review, our investigators determined that about one-third of the beneficiaries in the cases were deceased, prompting SSA to identify about $4.6 million in improper payments.

In one situation, investigators discovered that a Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipient died in 1995.  The following year, someone claimed to be the recipient and used her Social Security number (SSN) to file a widow’s benefit claim.  The SSI recipient’s daughter eventually admitted to stealing the funds.  SSA issued nearly a quarter of a million dollars in improper SSI and survivor’s benefits before stopping the payments in 2015.

Not all matches are indications of improper payments.  In some instances, California had incorrect SSNs on death certificates; in those cases, SSA identified the decedent’s correct SSN and updated the records appropriately.  

In every case, SSA took action to suspend or terminate the benefits for deceased persons listed in pay status.  In addition, SSA did not terminate payments for the SSNs compromised due to identity theft.

SSA Updates Death Information

Further, we also identified about 188,000 people from California who were likely deceased, had no death information associated with their SSN in SSA’s records, and who were not receiving benefits.  SSA promptly updated its database to incorporate the death information for the majority of these people to lessen the likelihood of erroneous payments.  To protect living individuals, SSA withheld the data from the remaining records if the match was not precise.

Our work on SSA’s death data continues to help the agency improve payment accuracy.  Resolving any discrepancies identified reduces SSA’s exposure to future improper payments and contributes to the completeness of the agency’s death records.