WASHINGTON - The Social Security Administration each month falsely reports that nearly 1,200 living Americans have died.
These clerical errors, found in a federal database ominously titled the "Death Master File," might be darkly humorous -- evoking Mark Twain's famous quip that death reports can be greatly exaggerated -- were not the consequences so severe.
"It has just been one thing right after another since I found out that I was dead," said an unsmiling Judy C. Rivers, 58, of Jasper, Ala. "Right now, I am still looking for a job. I hate to give out my Social Security number because I know exactly what is going to happen."
Dozens of times, Rivers has been told that her Social Security number is inactive because she's deceased. Police detained her for several hours last year under suspicion of identity fraud when she tried to use her debit card at a local Walmart. She's been denied college aid and home-refinance loans, been refused job interviews because of irregularities in her file and been rejected 14 times for credit cards.
"All of them said basically the same thing: 'The Social Security number cannot be confirmed' or 'Social Security number deactivated due to death,' " Rivers said.
The Social Security Administration has denied that it was the source of the error in Rivers' records and gave her letters certifying that she is alive and that her Social Security account is active.
"We make it clear that our death records are not perfect and may be incomplete or, rarely, include information about individuals who are alive," said Social Security Administration spokesman Mark Hinkle.
Scripps Howard News Service obtained three copies of the federal death file -- widely available to anyone on the Internet -- from 1998, 2008 and 2011. By comparing the files, Scripps easily identified 31,931 living Americans who were listed as deceased in 1998 or 2008 but were later taken off the death list after the Social Security Administration realized the errors.
The Death Master File was created in 1980 at the request of U.S. business interests to prevent consumer fraud. The massive database of nearly 90 million deceased Americans is widely distributed throughout government and among credit, banking and other private business groups.
The file is used to allocate federal benefits like Social Security and Medicare and to determine eligibility for bank loans, credit cards and insurance coverage. Employers looking for irregularities in a prospective employee's background access the Death Master File as part of routine background checks.
The United Network for Organ Sharing -- a private, nonprofit organization that manages the U.S. organ-transplant system under a contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services -- even uses the DMF to determine eligibility of organ-transplant candidates.
Hinkle said about one in every 200 entries the Social Security Administration makes to the Death Master File is false because of "inadvertent keying errors" by federal workers. That means 14,000 people are wrongly listed as deceased among the approximately 2.7 million deaths reported annually, Hinkle said.
"Living individuals are sometimes included in the DMF; however, it is a very small percentage," Hinkle said.
Newspapers and television stations owned by the E.W. Scripps Co. around the nation contacted dozens of the clerical victims of the Death Master File. Many reported profound impact upon their credit worthiness.
Mary Dubord of Newburgh, Ind., was falsely listed following the 1994 death of her mother-in-law, Myrtle Dubord. Her Social Security payments stopped and the IRS began questioning her income tax statements. She eventually gave up her struggles with credit bureaus and relies on credit cards obtained by her husband for daily life.
"You don't want to have the name, 'M Dubord'," she said.
Others resorted to unusual tactics when making major purchases.
"I can only buy cars from one particular salesman (who) already knows that somewhere along the line, I am going to get flagged for being dead," said Amy Duckworth of Memphis, Tenn. "Fortunately, he knows I am still alive."
Others faced significant consequences that lasted many years.
"I couldn't get a mortgage because, well, dead people can't get mortgages," said Laura Todd, 57, of Nashville, Tenn., who was put on the list in 1999, taken off and inexplicably put back on a few years later.
From 1999 through 2008, Todd suffered cancellation of her medical disability payments, two refusals by the Internal Revenue Service for her federal income tax refunds, cancellation of her credit cards and freezes placed upon her bank accounts. A family member even called Todd to warn that a record of her death was posted on a genealogy website.
"I spent almost 10 years trying to straighten this all out. No one ever sent me an apology or anything," Todd said. "The scary thing is that there are more and more baby boomers who are going to start applying for benefits. If they don't get this system in tow, it is going to get worse."
Consumer experts warn it's the false death reports that are the most worrisome problem with the Death Master File.
Scripps easily obtained the full names, Social Security numbers, dates of birth and residential ZIP codes of nearly 32,000 living Americans -- the kind of information that is automatically released when people die. Experts warn that this information is all a thief would need to commit many kinds of identity fraud.
"This information should not be public. It puts all of these people at risk for identity theft and other forms of fraud. It's a shame," said Beth Givens, executive director of the San Diego-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group that has received complaints from victims of false death reporting.
"The Social Security number, unfortunately, has taken on a lot more purposes than it was originally meant to. It is being used both as an identifier and an authenticator. That should not have been allowed to happen."
Some want an end to the wide public distribution of the death file.
"We don't believe that such private information about Americans should be so readily available online," said Carmen Balber, Washington director of the nonprofit Consumer Watchdog advocacy group. She called on the Social Security Administration to create a more secure method of confirming if a Social Security number is active.