26 July 2013

Bill Seeks to Kill Public Access to Social Security Death Index by 1 January 2019

[opinion alert--you have been warned]

It is called a bill to "protect grieving families." That's all hype--it makes good headlines, good sound bites, and good "twitterness." The problem is, like most hype, it is just that--hype.

Sam Johnson, Republican from Texas, has introduced a bill to restrict access to the Social Security Master Death File--with all public release ending on 1 January 2019 if the bill is passed in the current form. All public access.

The bill is in response to criminal activity where social security numbers of deceased children were used to fraudulently obtain benefits using the Social Security numbers of recently deceased children. Those names and Social Security numbers were obtained from the online version of the Social Security Master Death File--common sold and marketed as the Social Security Death Index. It is worth remembering that there are millions of names in this index and the number of fraud cases resulting from use of this index are not in the millions.

Access to this information allows banks to deny fraudulent credit applications based on recently deceased individuals. It also allows other financial institutions to prevent fraud because those companies have access to names and social security numbers of deceased individuals. Banks and other financial institutions are not going to publicly say how many times they use the file to prevent fraud or a bogus application.  There are thousands of legitimate uses of the Social Security Death Master File each and every day. Thousands.

There is another way.

But what about those people who claimed deceased children on their income taxes and obtained refunds based on those children's names and numbers, numbers they obtained from the Social Security Death Index? Those criminals filed the returns before the actual parents and got money to which they were not entitled and that is a crime and that is something that should be prevented. Restricting access to the Social Security Death Master File is not going to prevent this fraud from happening.

There is a fix for the IRS problem. An easy fix and one that does not deny access to that information to other people and institutions with a legitimate interest, an honest interest. Oh, it does require the IRS to do something and probably a little computer coding as well.

When a dependent is included on a tax return, why can't the social security number of the person claiming that child as a dependent  on the current return be compared with the social security number of the parent who claimed the child in the previous year?  Of course some of these differences will be from a divorce or other legitimate situation.

Wouldn't that prevent more fraud than Johnson's bill? And wouldn't that prevent fraud from others who used other means to obtain those numbers? I'm certain fraud of this type occurs for other reasons besides the death master file? Reasons that don't make for such nearly written headlines and sound bites.

Decide for yourself--but decide. Don't let overeager politicians intent on getting their name in the headline limit access to information to the public. Why should a list of dead people be private?

Information on Johnson's bill can be seen here http://samjohnson.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=343045

Read it.