Hearing on Social Security’s Death Records
COMMITTEE ON WAYS AND MEANS
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
ONE HUNDRED TWELFTH CONGRESS
COMMITTEE ON WAYS AND MEANS
KEVIN BRADY, Texas
|XAVIER BECERRA, California
LLOYD DOGGETT, Texas
SHELLEY BERKLEY, Nevada
FORTNEY PETE STARK, California
JON TRAUB, Staff Director
C O N T E N T S
The Honorable Michael J. Astrue
Commissioner, Social Security Administration
Stuart K. Pratt
Chief Executive Officer, Consumer Data Industry Association
Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications & Fraud, National Consumers League
The Honorable Patrick P. O’Carroll, Jr.
Inspector General, Social Security Administration
Dr. Patricia Potrzebowski
Executive Director, National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems, Silver Spring, Maryland
Hearing on Social Security’s Death Records
U.S. House of Representatives,
Committee on Ways and Means,
The subcommittee met, pursuant to notice, at 9:09 a.m., in Room B‑318, Rayburn House Office Building, Hon. Sam Johnson [chairman of the subcommittee] presiding.
[The advisory of the hearing follows:]
*Chairman Johnson. We are going to sit here for a few minutes. Our guys went to a prayer breakfast this morning, some of them, and they are on the way, but not here yet. And legally we can’t start a hearing without at least two of us. And so as soon as someone arrives, we will let Mr. Astrue begin his remarks. Until then, don’t attack him.
*Chairman Johnson. Okay, we have got another Member, Mr. Marchant.
*Mr. Marchant. Good morning. Sorry, I got turned around in the basement.
*Chairman Johnson. Did you? I get lost over here, too.
Well, since my fellow Texan has arrived, we will begin the hearing. I want to thank all of you for being here this morning. The hearing will come to order.
Social Security has always collected death information so it can stop benefits to those who have died and start benefits for their survivors. Today about 2.5 million death reports are received from many sources, including families, funeral homes, hospitals, financial institutions, states and Federal agencies. Social Security shares death records with other Federal benefit‑paying agencies, like the Veterans Administration, for instance.
The 1980 Freedom of Information Act court‑mandated settlement required Social Security to also make information about deceased Social Security number holders available to the public. Under the Freedom of Information Act, deceased individuals have no privacy rights, so their personal information can be disclosed. In response, Social Security created the so‑called Death Master File. Soon afterwards, in 1983, Congress changed the law to protect death reports received from states. The information in the Death Master File comes from non‑State sources and the file is sold to the public by the Department of Commerce.
Over time, a broad commercial interest has developed in the Death Master File for use in private benefit management and as a tool to prevent fraud and identity theft. Many groups purchase the file from the Commerce Department, including government agencies, credit reporting agencies, financial institutions, law enforcement organizations, and medical and genealogical researchers.
But what made sense 30 years ago, no longer makes sense today. Identity thieves who get their hands on a Social Security number can reap instant rewards, while the rightful owner has no idea what has happened. And that is partly due to our technology today.
With 84 million listed individuals and 1.5 million new individuals added each year, it appears that this File has become a resource for criminals seeking to capitalize on Americans’ identities, particularly the identities of deceased children.
In her recent annual report to Congress, the National Taxpayer Advocate found that the Federal Government facilitates tax‑related ID theft through the release of the Death Master File. In no uncertain terms, the National Taxpayer Advocate states in the report that she “is appalled that the Federal Government is making sensitive personal information so readily available, when such information can easily be used to commit identity theft.”
We will hear the heartbreaking story of the Agin family, whose four‑year‑old daughter had her identity stolen shortly after she passed away. Only when their tax return was rejected by the IRS, did they learn that an identity thief had already filed a return claiming their child as a dependent.
Worrying about a lost loved one’s Social Security number is a burden no grieving family should bear. That’s why I, along with a number of my colleagues, introduced H.R. 3475, the “Keeping IDs Safe Act of 2011,” to protect this information. Even Social Security reports that approximately 14,000 living individuals are wrongly placed on the Death Master File each year. Any one of us could find ourselves mistakenly on that list ‑ an inexcusable mistake that exposes our personal information and could cause severe personal and financial hardship.
Through our witnesses today we will learn more about the history of the Death Master File, its accuracy, and how it is used. Soon this Subcommittee will hold a joint hearing with the Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee to more closely examine identity theft in the tax system.
Americans rightfully deserve action to stop thieves from exploiting our deceased loved ones.
Do you have any comments to make before we allow your witness to make his opening remarks?
*Mr. Marchant. Well, thank you, Mr. Chairman. I have looked forward to this hearing for some time. I apologize for being late.
This issue really came to the forefront in my mind a couple of years ago, when I had a family contact me about the theft of their Social Security card from their mailbox for an infant that was just born. And of course, that does not parallel the tragedy of a child that has died having their Social Security number stolen, but this family was very distraught. And I became distraught as well, when I contacted the Social Security Administration on their behalf and was told that, unless we could prove that the child had come to some financial harm, that they would not be able to be issued a new Social Security card or a new number.
I understand that a person that has had several jobs or has had a credit report and has had their number circulated for many, many years, I can understand that. We cannot just begin to issue Social Security numbers just because someone has had their identity stolen.
But in the case of infants, which my two granddaughters ‑‑ my son, one of the first things my son was told that he had to do when the grandbabies were born was, “You have got to go get a Social Security card, and you have got to have a Social Security number” ‑‑ when I tried to open a savings account for them to start putting some money in there for their college education, I had to have a Social Security number. I mean I had to do this. So, he didn’t feel like, as a parent, he had the option of not having a Social Security number.
And so, I am looking forward to the hearing today. Thank you for doing it. I am very interested in learning more about the Master Death File. With the amount of fraud going on in the country today, I mean the amount of fraud going on in this system, and with trillion‑dollar deficits, I, as a Congressman, feel like I owe it to my constituents and the American public to make sure that we are good stewards of Social Security.
*Chairman Johnson. Yes, thank you for your comments.
*Mr. Marchant. Thank you.
*Chairman Johnson. We have two panels today. And seated at the table is our first panel, and the only witness in the first panel, Commissioner of Social Security Michael J. Astrue. Welcome, Commissioner. You may proceed with your comments.
STATEMENT OF MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION
*Mr. Astrue. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Chairman Johnson, Ranking Member Becerra, and members of the subcommittee, thank you for this opportunity to testify about the Social Security Death Master File and identity theft. This hearing marks our first opportunity to express our views to Congress on this important subject, and I commend you for adding it to your agenda.
Identity theft is a plague on our nation, and one that is spreading. A hacker successfully targeted me just a few weeks ago, and so I know the frustration, anger, anxiety, and sense of violation that comes with this crime.
The Federal Government must do all that we can to reduce this plague, and we certainly should not make it worse. As my written testimony explains in detail, unintended application of the Freedom of Information Act to data in the Death Master File has created a new opening for cyberthieves. This form of identity theft is fairly recent, but appears to be growing. Accordingly, we must move swiftly to shut this activity down. For that reason we support the principles of Chairman Johnson’s bill H.R. 3475, which would strike a fair and better balance between transparency and respect for privacy.
I should note that the Office of Management and Budget has been leading a review of this issue by interested Federal agencies, and we expect to offer a few improvements clarifying the terms and conditions by which Federal agencies and certain private organizations would have access to these data. These suggestions, however, should not slow Congress from moving forward aggressively with this important initiative.
In addition, we acknowledge that this legislation does not remove the need for us, at the Social Security Administration, to maintain the most accurate records possible.
Again, I commend the committee for holding this hearing, and I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.
[The statement of Mr. Astrue follows:]
*Chairman Johnson. As is customary for each round of questions, I will limit my time to five minutes and ask my colleagues to also limit their questioning to five minutes.
Commissioner, in your testimony you talk about your obligations under the Freedom of Information Act. And I am glad you did. In past audit reports, the Social Security Inspector General has criticized the agency for putting personal information of the deceased on the Death Master File, that the court settlement really did not require, according to him.
For example, you list a person’s date of birth, the zip code, and the settlement did not require that information to be made public. You said you recently tried to do one simple thing, remove the zip code from the Death Master File, and you are already getting picked to death ‑‑ excuse the pun ‑‑ by inquiries and lawyers. Lawyers are going to pick you apart, regardless.
Fixing the death data system to protect both the living and dead from identity theft, and to allow the agency to go on with its important business, is Congress’s responsibility, in my view. Isn’t eliminating the publication of the Death Master File, as I propose, the best way to make sure none of this information about deceased is made public?
*Mr. Astrue. Absolutely, Mr. Chairman. There has been some confusion. I think some of it has been fostered in the press. I think that some of the auditors, with all due respect for the Inspector General, are confused on this point.
The Perholtz Settlement in 1980, is based on the view that the Department of Justice came to in that litigation, that basically we had no choice, that we had to turn over the specific items requested in that litigation, so we entered into a consent decree.
The same rationale applies to other information. The legal analysis is exactly the same. So the fact that the settlement agreement does not specifically address certain data elements really isn’t relevant at all, nor does Mr. Perholtz, as some irresponsible reporters have suggested, have the authority to dictate this to the Federal Government.
You are exactly right. Congress has said in the Freedom of Information Act, “You must release data of certain profile, unless Congress has provided you with an exception.” Congress had not done that in 1980, hasn’t done it now, and quite understandably, because it was not a problem back in that time period. But to your credit, Mr. Chairman, and to the credit of other Members of Congress, you have seen that the world has changed, you know that it is a problem now, and you know that we need action. And we support all that, and we want to support you in that action.
*Chairman Johnson. Thank you, sir. You know, information is almost instant today. And if you put the wrong stuff out there, you are in trouble.
*Mr. Astrue. That is for sure.
*Chairman Johnson. Social Security has also been criticized by the Inspector General for putting individuals on the Death Master File who are not dead; 20,000 people over a 3‑year period ending in April 2007, to be exact, according to one of their audits.
Your agency estimates the number to be about 14,000 per year. Countless news reports tell the horrifying stories of the personal and financial hardship these people endure when these terrible mistakes are made. Isn’t eliminating the Death Master File the only certain way to prevent these errors and potential ID thefts from occurring?
*Mr. Astrue. Yes, it is, Mr. Chairman. And again, we have a remarkably accurate system overall, and we strive to make it more accurate. But it is a voluntary system. In some ways it is remarkable that we do as well as we do. No matter how we improve our own internal processes, we are not going to be able to eliminate all mistakes.
And potentially, the cost of those mistakes could be substantial. I think, up to this point, the living have been fortunate in that the big problems have been with the theft of identities from people who have, in fact, passed away.
But it is a horrible thing that people go through. And I have seen it. In one week, one of my closest relatives and one of my closest friends and neighbors were declared dead, one by our agency and one by one of our other Federal agencies. So I was right in the middle ‑‑ it is a horrible thing to go through, and I understand that. We need to reduce that, irrespective of what we do on the Death Master File.
But you are absolutely right. The only way to make sure that when we make a mistake it doesn’t have devastating public consequences, is to enact legislation that keeps the Death Master File more confidential than it is today.
*Chairman Johnson. Yes. The Inspector General also found that Social Security’s policy is not to inform Americans when they are victims of these kind of errors. Why can’t you tell the victims, and let them take immediate action to protect themselves?
*Mr. Astrue. Mr. Chairman, we are relooking at this now. We have been complying with OMB guidance in this area. We contract for monitoring of the credit of individuals who have had a brief exposure in the public. Then we notify them if there was any indication that there had been any irregularity in their credit or their finances.
But we are relooking at that now. Hopefully, it will be irrelevant very soon, because some version of your bill will be enacted by Congress this year.
*Chairman Johnson. Thank you. Mr. Becerra has arrived. Do you want to question?
*Mr. Becerra. Of course, Mr. Chairman. And I want to apologize for being detained, because this is one of those hearings where I think we actually can get some things done pretty quickly, because there is strong bipartisan support, we have demonstrated that in the past. And so my apologies. It is an important hearing.
*Chairman Johnson. You mean you agree with me?
*Mr. Becerra. Absolutely, Mr. Chairman. Absolutely. And that is on the record.
*Mr. Becerra. And Commissioner, it is great to see you here.
*Mr. Astrue. Thank you.
*Mr. Becerra. And thank you very much. I know that you have been trying to tackle this, as well. I think every Member who sits on this subcommittee has heard the stories. And I know we are going to hear a pretty devastating story from one of our witnesses. So I think it is one of those things that we have to tackle.
Obviously, the issue is making sure we provide information out there to our government agencies and to the private sector entities that deal with personal data, so that they can make sure they have the tools to detect and prevent fraudulent use of personal information. But clearly, too much of the information is getting out to those who use it for the wrong reasons.
And so, Mr. Chairman, rather than go into any opening statement, if I could just ask for unanimous consent to enter my written statement into the record, I will go straight to some questions.
*Chairman Johnson. Without objection, so ordered.
[The statement of The Honorable Xavier Becerra follows:]
*Mr. Becerra. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Commissioner, I guess the troubling aspect of this is that trying to find that balance in giving the information to those who need it so they can start to check records to make sure people aren’t filing false applications for credit cards and so forth, and of course figuring out a way to make sure that that information stays tightly in the hands of those who need it. Is SSA looking at the possibility of trying to limit access to the records of deceased individuals?
Because my understanding is today the Master File essentially is sold once you have packaged it, once Commerce goes out there to sell it, they sell it to anyone who is willing to pay for it.
*Mr. Astrue. Right. I am not speaking for the agency now, I am speaking on behalf of the administration. As I mentioned in my remarks, we have a group that OMB has been leading for a while working on this issue. We have a lot of interested agencies.
So, we think the general principle– that the starting point is that instead of assuming that everything should be disclosed unless there is an exception, we should be moving the other way, with the presumption that information is withheld unless there are very specific rules as to who should get it, and what should be the protections and conditions that are built in to those arrangements.
Also, within the Federal Government, there is a little bit of a gap in the statute that I know has frustrated the President. The President is very interested in what used to be called the Do Not Pay List, which is now called GOVerify, and has directed everyone in the executive branch who is participating in that to use the Death Master File for program integrity purposes.
Unfortunately, the statute does not permit all the agencies that could benefit from program integrity efforts with the Death Master File to use those records, because right now we are only allowed to share with them benefit‑paying agencies. We can, on a discretionary basis, share the Death Master File for research. But there is an area ‑‑ I think very legitimate Federal use ‑‑ where we can improve the operations of government significantly if we also have clearer and broader authority to share death information within the Federal agencies.
*Mr. Becerra. Do you think there is ‑‑ can you answer this question? Is there a problem with the disclosure of the Death Master File to Federal agencies? Is there any evidence that is has been misused or loosely guarded by the agencies, so that we would have to put constraints on Federal agencies?
*Mr. Astrue. I am not aware of any. From everything I know ‑‑
*Mr. Becerra. So it is mostly the fact that ‑‑
*Mr. Astrue. ‑‑ all Federal agencies have been careful in this regard. On the other hand ‑‑
*Mr. Becerra. So, let me ask this ‑‑
*Mr. Astrue. ‑‑ it would be appropriate to consider that.
*Mr. Becerra. Right. So we may want to take a look at what we need to do to safeguard it when other Federal agencies get the information.
*Mr. Astrue. Right.
*Mr. Becerra. And making sure that they safeguard it as much as necessary as they use it.
This issue of outside entities getting to purchase, that is where we really have to be careful, because there is less control over that. Is there something that we can do quickly, where if it is, as you indicate there seems to gbe eneral agreement within the Federal Government, that we have to try to figure out a way to not give it out, this information out, so quickly.
Is there something that we can act on bipartisanly quickly so that we can not just send messages that we want to try to safeguard the information, but that we can actually get underway with something that actually requires those that obtain this information to keep it secure? And, quite honestly, punishes those who misuse the information?
*Mr. Astrue. Right. So ‑‑ and I am not trying to be cute here– it depends a little bit on your definition of “quickly.” I know from participating in this interagency group, which has been working hard, that this is a lot more difficult than it looks at first. And if you do it quickly, as in a month, six weeks, the chances are pretty high that you will get it wrong, because there are hard and important balances here.
*Mr. Becerra. I agree with that.
*Mr. Astrue. And this needs to be crafted extremely carefully.
On the other hand, if you are defining “quickly” as can we get it passed this year, my answer to that would be yes, we have to go pedal to the metal, work in a way between the Houses, between the parties, between the Congress and the Executive branch, that doesn’t happen very often these days. But I think that we can do it, because I have talked to a lot of Members, both Houses, both parties. I don’t think this is one of those issues where you are badly divided.
*Mr. Becerra. I agree.
*Mr. Astrue. I think this is largely working out the technical issues. So I think that if we can focus, we get help, get the spirit, work openly with the group at OMB, I think that we can get this done. I think it probably will take a couple months to work through all the details and craft the actual language that draws these difficult balances the right way. But I think it is doable in a few months.
*Mr. Becerra. Mr. Chairman, maybe one thing we can really concentrate on is working with the Commissioner and whatever agencies are appropriate to have at the table and see if we can ‑‑ I wouldn’t want to rush it, either. I know you wouldn’t want to rush it, either. But to the degree that there might be a chance, I think we should explore that.
*Chairman Johnson. Yes, I agree. And I mentioned earlier, before you got here, that we are going to have a joint hearing with another committee to try to see if we can’t figure something out.
*Mr. Becerra. Excellent, excellent.
*Chairman Johnson. It is a continuous problem that can’t be solved right now, but needs to be addressed, certainly.
*Mr. Astrue. And I want to say I will do everything I know how to do to do this. I want to commend OMB, because I think Martha Coven and Shelley Metzenbaum have done a great job trying to get agencies with very different perspectives to work on this issue.
I had been hopeful that maybe I could come up with more specificity today. But I think it is more important to get it right than to get it fast.
*Mr. Becerra. Yes, yes.
*Mr. Astrue. So I would encourage you, as you figure out the best way to work on it with your staffs, to also reach out directly to the folks at OMB who I think are doing a ‑‑
*Mr. Becerra. And let us know ‑‑
*Chairman Johnson. You need to work on your guys down there and make sure they don’t make injuring errors any more.
*Mr. Becerra. And, Mr. Chairman, let us ‑‑ Mr. Commissioner, you should let us know if we can help you excite some of the other agencies to participate. And while they may be very busy, they may not be as enthusiastic or animated in moving this quickly. And let us know if we can help you animate them.
*Mr. Astrue. I think ‑‑
*Chairman Johnson. Well, this is one of those issues that ‑‑
*Mr. Astrue. I think there are occasions, Mr. Becerra, where we do appreciate that help. I think in this particular case it is fair to say that in the beginning it took a little while because it is a new issue, and I think we have got the agencies, whose attention needs to be focused on this, very focused on it.
*Chairman Johnson. Yes.
*Mr. Astrue. And in fact, we have had very animated discussions about this. It is going to take us another month or so, probably, to give you the more detailed feedback that you probably need to go forward.
*Mr. Becerra. Great. Thank you.
*Chairman Johnson. Thank you. And, Mr. Marchant, do you care to question?
*Mr. Marchant. I have one question. A constituent has contacted me recently, and this constituent is heavily into research of her ancestry. And I suspect that there are millions like her. How can we be careful in what we do to make sure that the people that are harmed are protected, but those people that are vitally interested in their ancestry can still access accurate information?
*Mr. Astrue. I know that there is concern with the genealogists. I think that raises some challenges that we don’t have when we are talking about large institutions that can be fined and penalized easily by the Federal Government if there is inappropriate use.
I do think that in most cases, genealogists can find the information that they really want from other sources. I have seen some of the communications from those groups, and I do think it is an over‑reaction right now.
I think that probably what we need to do is to talk about a different framework, in terms of perhaps eventual release. That is what happens with Census data.
But I honestly am not persuaded that, in the short run, withholding it for some period of years is going to seriously impair genealogical research, which I have done myself. I have been working on a project in my own family. So I appreciate the dedication that people have to it. But at some point I think what comes first has to be families that have four‑year‑olds whose identity is stolen, and those types of things. I think that is what comes first.
And then I think the question is, is there a way, or what is the best way, to accommodate those other interests, and does that mean a delay in release for some extended period of time? Whether that is 10 years, whether that is 75 years, like the Census. Those are questions that we have talked about in the interagency group, but we have not come to resolution on those or a lot of the related issues yet, because they are hard issues.
*Mr. Marchant. Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
*Chairman Johnson. Let me just ask a question that kind of follows up on what he said. When are we going to receive your recommendations to address this problem?
*Mr. Astrue. I would hope, Mr. Chairman, that it would be piecemeal in real time. I think that as many of these conversations that we can have as quickly as possible would be the best.
I think there are certain ones that are fairly easy. If you go back and look at the congressional hearings in the wake of 9/11, Congress had a lot of interest in us getting more, better Death Master File data out faster to the financial communities to try to prevent money laundering and the kinds of things that can fund terrorism.
There are court orders right now requiring life insurance companies to use the Death Master File so that they pay insurance claims that are due, and don’t use the fact that some claims are not pursued as a way of just making more money. So there is a bunch of issues.
I think the financial corporations are probably the easiest. I think we have had a fair amount of usage from educational and health care institutions. I think those are probably fairly easy. I think questions like the genealogists are much trickier and will take some time.
So what I would say is I would hope that we would be talking substantially more guidance on some issues within a matter of weeks. But maybe not everything, because we have a lot of agencies that, quite candidly, right now, have a different perspective on some of these issues. So I can’t come up and speak to you authoritatively until we coordinate agreement on that. In some issues that should be very soon, in some it will probably take a little bit longer.
*Chairman Johnson. Okay. Well, let’s work together and try to get it done as quickly as we can.
Social Security, in the past, has provided funds to the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems to develop and implement the electronic verification of vital events. This is an online system that verifies birth and death information through a single interface. Does this system have the potential, in your view, to be the go‑to agency for the death information now provided by the Death Master File?
*Mr. Astrue. We will certainly take a look at that, Mr. Johnson. I think it has been difficult enough getting a database the way that we are doing it now. I would be a little bit reluctant to start over. But I will certainly look into this. It is a question that just came to my attention recently. I was not terribly aware of this. So we will look at that in good faith.
What I will say also, regarding funding to support our electronic death registration, authority moved over to HHS on that, and there has not been money appropriated to accelerate that process. We have, I believe, 32 states and 2 jurisdictions that are at least partially participating in that system. The relatively small amount of money to get the other 18 states on board, I think, would do a lot to make the system more accurate, faster, and better for everybody that is using it.
[The statement of Mr. Astrue #1 follows:]
[The statement of Mr. Astrue #2 follows:]
*Chairman Johnson. Do you think that Social Security could develop a system that could be a source for death information? And should Congress change the law to prevent the Death Master File from being made public?
*Mr. Astrue. I do believe that Congress should start with the proposition that we should not be releasing this information, except for very specific purposes that the Congress has thought hard about, with protections for the public so that the Federal agencies have full authority to protect the data, as best as possible, if it is used for any other reason. I think the American people really expect no less from us.
*Chairman Johnson. Thank you, sir. I think that concludes your testimony, and we will proceed to our second panel. And while our witnesses are taking their seats, I just want to thank you for being here, and thank you for the job you are doing over there.
*Mr. Astrue. Well, thank you. We are really pleased that you have raised this issue, and that you have bipartisan support. And we are looking forward to working with you on the issue.
*Chairman Johnson. Thank you, sir. The witnesses in the second panel who are taking their seats are Jonathan Agin, from Arlington, Virginia; Stuart Pratt, who is the Chief Executive Officer of the Consumer Data Industry Association; John Breyault, who is the Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud at the National Consumers League; the Honorable Patrick O’Carroll, who is the Social Security Administration’s Inspector General; Dr. Patricia Potrzebowski, Executive Director of the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems in Silver Spring, Maryland.
You are all seated.
Mr. Agin, welcome. You may proceed.
STATEMENT OF JONATHAN AGIN, ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA
*Mr. Agin. Good morning, Mr. Chairman, Mr. Becerra, and members of the committee. Thank you for inviting me to testify today on this issue that I believe is of vital importance.
Our story begins with the diagnosis of our amazing daughter, Alexis Gina Agin, with a terminal brain tumor on April 10, 2008, when she was just 2 years old. This terrible disease took her life on January 14, 2011, just 2 weeks shy of her fifth birthday. Alexis was and is my hero. Fighting valiantly until the end, she has inspired thousands around the world with her journey.
In 2010, my wife and I traveled with Alexis up and down the East Coast trying several experimental treatments in a desperate attempt to save her life. With each trip, Alexis’s medical bills grew. When our 2010 taxes were due, we filed an extension in order to focus on Alexis’s treatment, and compiled the vast medical bills that we had.
As we finalized the return in October 2011, I received a call from our accountant to let us know that somebody had stolen Alexis’s Social Security number to file a fraudulent tax return. We were forced then to file a paper return, and then prove that Alexis was, in fact, our daughter to proceed with our tax filing.
Thankfully, with the help of our congressional representative, our personal tax situation was resolved favorably.
Within hours of learning of this crime, I personally was contacted by no fewer than 14 other families whose children had died from cancer, and advised that the same thing had happened to them. Since that time, this number has grown significantly. That demonstrates to me that this community is being singularly targeted for this type of theft.
In a matter of 30 seconds, I personally was able to find my daughter’s complete Social Security number, birth and date ‑‑ death dates, full address, and zip code on several websites intended for genealogical research.
After investigating more, we learned about the 1980 and 1982 consent judgment with Mr. Perholtz. It because obvious at that point in time that the Federal Government, through the publication of the Death Master File, was aiding in the commission of this crime. It is my belief that the Federal Government is responsible for providing identity thieves the information to commit this crime.
The common denominator in this story is the Death Master File. The Social Security Administration, as you have just heard from the commissioner, makes this Death Master File publicly available anybody who wishes to purchase it. Some of the intended recipients are government agencies. And some are services which allow people to do genealogical research. Some of these purchasers make the information free and available to anybody with a computer.
As a taxpayer and a parent of a child who passed away from cancer, I am outraged that the most private information of our children is being made commercially available. Not only is this an invasion of my child’s privacy, but it adds to the tremendous grief that my wife and I live with on a daily basis. While trivial to some, Alexis’s Social Security number is one of the only things that we have left of her identity.
Recently, the IRS estimated that approximately 350,000 fraudulent filings occurred in 2010. According to IRS officials, these fraudulent filings claimed $1.25 billion in refunds.
One of the problems is that the Federal Government, as we have heard, is disclosing more information than is necessary, pursuant to the terms of the consent judgement. In June 2008, as we have heard, the inspector general of the Social Security Administration issued a very critical report detailing how publication of the Death Master File, or the DMF, has resulted in the breach of citizens’ personally identifiable information. The report concludes that the Social Security Administration discloses far more detailed personal information in the DMF than required under the original consent judgement.
H.R. 3475 is a solution to a significant problem that affects not only grieving parents, but every family who loses a loved one. Some argue that this bill will not stop widespread fraud. Some argue that the DMF is critical to combat and conduct genealogical research. This bill is not intended to prevent or limit the lawful use of the DMF, and I think that is an important distinction that everybody needs to understand. Nobody is trying to limit the availability of the DMF to track down fraud. My point is that we need to limit it to ensure that nobody else has to suffer as my wife and the vast number of cancer families have suffered.
In closing, this is not a victimless crime. My daughter is a victim. She was victimized twice, once by the cancer that stole her from this earth, and then by a cold‑hearted criminal who stalked her and utilized her death for profit. It disgusts me to no end to know that somebody preyed upon my daughter’s death for his or her own gain. It is nothing short of a despicable crime. And the release of Alexis’s complete Social Security number and other personal identifiers in the DMF to the general public facilitated this crime. I have no doubt of that.
This simply is not an emotionally‑charged issue, as some argue. Fraud is not something that we simply should accept as a necessary consequence of easy access to information. It is time that this loophole is closed, and this legislation is the manner in which to accomplish this aim. It is simple and to the point. And in this era, when our government is struggling to find ways to save money for the taxpayer, it is a very easy fix with little to no consequences, repercussions, or detriment to the citizens of this country.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
[The statement of Mr. Agin follows:]
*Chairman Johnson. Thank you, sir. That is a beautiful girl.
*Mr. Agin. Thank you.
*Chairman Johnson. Mr. Pratt, welcome. Please go ahead.
STATEMENT OF STUART K. PRATT, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER, CONSUMER DATA INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION
*Mr. Pratt. Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Becerra, members of the committee, thank you for the chance to appear and testify. Thank you for holding this hearing. And, candidly, thank you for the opportunity for the CDIA and its members to contribute to solving the problem, so that we don’t have other families who have suffered the way the Agins have suffered. And that is, I think, the balance that we are looking for.
Mr. Becerra, in many ways, some of the questions you asked in the first round of testimony are just right on. And really, without going through all the testimony that we have submitted for the record, there are important uses for the Death Master File.
In our world, it is a business‑to‑business transaction. In our world, it is a contractual transaction. In our world, it is a secured and closed transaction. And in our world, it is a non‑public use. So the information and the data itself is subject to information security standards. So, in our world, it is using the Death Master File to stop identity theft, to stop entitlement fraud, to stop ‑‑ to enable a life insurance company ‑‑ in fact, in some cases, by law, but in most states not ‑‑ to track down individuals who are the beneficiaries of life insurance, to ensure that claims are processed properly and effectively and quickly for individuals who have lost a loved one.
Our members deliver approximately ‑‑ our members’ data is involved in probably nine billion transactions every year in the United States. We are probably the best channel of distribution for this kind of information in a private sector marketplace, to make sure that the data is used quickly. In fact, I testified on this very topic right after 9/11. The commissioner mentioned this issue in his testimony, as well.
And, in fact, we were involved in working with the Department of Commerce, and our own members were involved in working to ramp up the speed with which we could, in a secure manner, get the Death Master File, move it into data centers so that it could be used for all of these types of transactions we have just discussed.
In our view, it is not the use of the Death Master File in the business‑to‑business context which is creating the risk. That is the reason we are here, and that is the reason we have already had some meetings with staff to explain how we think the bill could be clarified, to make sure that appropriate uses are codified, and that you can still protect the Death Master File from otherwise being subject to a Freedom of Information Act type of request that makes it available to anyone. We would support amendments to do that.
We appreciate this opportunity to testify, and I am honored to be on the panel with Mr. Agin. Thank you.
[The statement of Mr. Pratt follows:]
*Chairman Johnson. Thank you, sir. I appreciate your testimony.
Mr. Breyault, welcome. You may proceed, sir.
STATEMENT OF JOHN BREYAULT, VICE PRESIDENT OF PUBLIC POLICY, TELECOMMUNICATIONS AND FRAUD, NATIONAL CONSUMERS LEAGUE
*Mr. Breyault. Good morning, Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Becerra, and members of the subcommittee. My name is John Breyault, and I am vice president of public policy, telecommunications and fraud for the National Consumers League.
Founded in 1899, NCL is the nation’s oldest consumer organization. Our non‑profit mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. I greatly appreciate the opportunity to discuss the impact that the misuse of the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File data has on consumers.
As the director of NCL’s fraud center, I hear on a daily basis about the personal and financial toll that identity theft and other fraud takes on consumers and their families. The statistics are sobering. In 2011 we received nearly 9,000 complaints from victims of a variety of scams. Consumers reporting fraud to NCL lost, on average, $990. And, in many cases, these unscrupulous con artists financial ruined their victims.
NCL statistics represent only a small fraction of the fraud problem, however. In 2010, the Federal Trade Commission received over 1.3 million complaints, of which more than 250,000 involved identity theft. And even that number represents only those victims who knew enough to complain to the FTC. According to one estimate, 8.1 million adults were victims of identity theft in 2010, with each incident costing $631 to resolve.
Despite these numbers, it never ceases to amaze me, the lengths to which scam artists will go to defraud consumers. As the father of two young daughters, the reports I have seen of the misuse of dead children’s identities to commit tax fraud sickens me. The vulnerability of children to identity theft is well established. It is estimated that as many as 140,000 minors fall victim to ID fraud annually. According to Carnegie Mellon researchers, 10.2 percent of children have had their Social Security number misused by someone else, a rate 51 times higher than the rate for adults.
While it is unknown how many deceased children’s identities have been used to commit tax fraud, the volume of news reports about this scam, and anecdotal evidence from their parents, such as Mr. Agin, suggest it is not limited to a few isolated cases. It is also clear that by using websites that publish DMF data, identity thieves can quickly and cheaply gain access to recently‑deceased children’s full names, dates of birth, and full Social Security numbers: the so‑called holy trinity of personally‑identifying information.
Clearly, the role that the public availability of the SSA’s DMF data plays in these scams requires additional study. Consumers are also harmed when they are mistakenly listed as deceased on the DMF. The SSA has stated that approximately 14,000 living Americans are affected by these errors annually. Such mistakes can lead to frozen bank accounts, canceled cell phone service, loan denials, and refused job interviews. It can require months for the SSA to correct these errors. And even then, living individuals’ personally‑identifiable information may still be exposed.
The public availability of the SSA’s DMF data is certainly not the sole driver of identity theft. Indeed, many organizations use DMF data regularly to deter fraud, administer pension benefits, and conduct medical research, among other uses. That said, it is clear that reform is needed to address the likelihood that identity thieves will continue to make use of the public DMF to harm consumers.
While NCL generally supports transparency of government data, in this case we believe that the risk that the public DMF could be used for nefarious purposes outweighs the benefit. However, in the interest of protecting legitimate uses of the DMF, we do not believe that a total ban on the sale of this data would be in the best interest of consumers. Instead, we would urge Congress and the SSA to undertake a number of reforms.
First, personally identifiable information included in the public DMF should be limited, and alternatives to the inclusion of the full Social Security number in the file should be explored.
Second, living Americans who have been mistakenly listed in the DMF should be notified that their personally‑identifiable information may have been compromised, and steps to safeguard their identities should be recommended.
Third, access to the DMF should be restricted to organizations that can certify they have a legitimate need for the information, such as for fraud prevention, or benefits administration purposes.
Fourth, penalties should be increased for DMF recipients who fail to keep DMF data up to date, or who misuse or redisclose DMF information.
Finally, the SSA should undertake a study, in conjunction with DMF data recipients, to evaluate the usefulness of DMF data in preventing identity theft.
In conclusion, I would like to take this opportunity once again to thank you, Mr. Chairman and the members of the subcommittee, for inviting me to testify today on behalf of the National Consumers League, and consumers nationwide.
I look forward to answering your questions.
[The statement of Mr. Breyault follows:]
*Chairman Johnson. Thank you, sir. I appreciate your testimony.
Mr. O’Carroll, you are recognized. Thank you for being here.
STATEMENT OF PATRICK P. O’CARROLL, JR., INSPECTOR GENERAL, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION
*Mr. O’Carroll. Good morning, Chairman Johnson, Mr. Becerra, Mr. Marchant, and members of the subcommittee. Thank you for this invitation to testify today.
My office believes that limiting public access to the agency’s Death Master File, or DMF, to what is required by law, and taking all possible steps to ensure the file’s accuracy are critical elements in preventing SSN misuse and identity theft.
Only Congress is authorized to alter what the law requires, so my office works closely with SSA on the second element, ensuring the accuracy of the DMF.
We have conducted multiple audits and made many recommendations with this obligation in mind. In a 2008 report on SSA’s death records, we reported that thousands of living individuals were mistakenly listed as deceased on the DMF. These errors can have a serious financial impact on the affected individuals, and the errors can lead to identity theft.
To protect personal information and improve SSN integrity, we recommended that SSA consider implementing a several‑month delay in the release of the DMF updates, so the agency could correct erroneous death entries before they are made public; limit the amount of information included on the DMF to the absolute minimum required by law; and explore alternatives to the inclusion of a person’s full SSN on the DMF.
The agency has not taken action on these recommendations for the following reasons: SSA said government and financial organizations depend on the DMF data to combat fraud and identity theft, so they must have timely, up‑to‑date death information; and SSA said that the DMF data does not have to be limited to what the law requires, because a deceased individual does not have privacy rights, according to the Freedom of Information Act.
There are about 1,000 cases each month in which a living individual is mistakenly included in the DMF. We have found that these errors usually occurred when SSA processed death information that came from a family member or a funeral home. SSA said it moves quickly to correct the situation when errors occur. The agency reports it has not found evidence of past data misuse. However, we remain concerned that these errors can lead to premature benefit termination and cause financial hardship and distress.
DMF files with active SSNs belonging to living persons can serve as a source of information that would be useful in committing SSN misuse and identity theft. DMF updates reveal to potential criminals the personal information of individuals who are alive. The information could be used to apply for credit or benefits, or assume a whole new identity.
Limiting or discontinuing the availability of the DMF is a serious legislative and policy decision for Congress and the SSA. In November 2011, Chairman Johnson and several members of the subcommittee introduced the Keeping IDs Safe Act. The bill would end the sale of the DMF to the public. The public distribution of SSA’s death records raises serious concerns.
Valid SSNs can, in essence, be purchased from the government by clever identity thieves. However, DMF data has important productive uses in government and in the financial industry, including verifying deaths, ensuring benefit payment accuracy, and identifying and preventing ID theft. The SSN’s key uses in government and finance make the SSN a valuable commodity for criminals. And both SSN misuse and identity theft remain a significant public risk. Failure to take action creates an unnecessary public hazard.
In conclusion, we encourage efforts to limit public access to the DMF through legislative or policy changes, such as the Keeping the IDs Safe Act. Pending such changes, we will continue to examine the issue and recommend steps to limit the information made available to the extent permitted by law, and advocate a risk‑based approach to the distribution of the DMF.
We look forward to continuing to work with the subcommittee and SSA in these and future efforts to protect personal information, and to prevent identity theft. Thank you for this invitation to testify today, and I will be happy to answer any questions.
[The statement of Mr. O’Carroll follows:]
*Chairman Johnson. Thank you, sir. Appreciate your testimony. I hope we can resolve that. I didn’t realize until we got started on this that Social Security was responsible for that Death File. You know, it seems to me if Commerce is selling it, they ought to be responsible for it, or the states, not Social Security. Do you agree?
*Mr. O’Carroll. Or just restricting the use, in general ‑‑
*Chairman Johnson. Yes.
*Mr. O’Carroll. ‑‑ is what ‑‑
*Chairman Johnson. Thank you.
*Mr. O’Carroll. ‑‑ helpful.
*Chairman Johnson. Dr. Potrzebowski?
*Ms. Potrzebowski. Very good.
*Chairman Johnson. Got it.
*Ms. Potrzebowski. Thank you.
*Chairman Johnson. You are recognized. Please go ahead. Thank you.
STATEMENT OF PATRICIA POTRZEBOWSKI, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR PUBLIC HEALTH STATISTICS AND INFORMATION SYSTEMS, SILVER SPRING, MARYLAND
*Ms. Potrzebowski. Thank you. Good morning, Mr. Chairman, Mr. Becerra, and members of the subcommittee. My name is Patricia Potrzebowski, and I serve as executive director of the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems, or NAPHSIS.
NAPHSIS represents the 57 jurisdictions responsible for vital records in the United States, including the 50 states, the District of Columbia, New York City, and the 5 territories. I am pleased to offer this testimony on the important civil registration function of vital records, and more specifically, enhancements the vital records jurisdictions are making to improve the accuracy, security, and timeliness of death registration.
Vital records are permanent legal documents, and include live births, deaths, fetal deaths, marriages, and divorces. The 57 vital records jurisdictions, not the Federal Government, have legal authority for the registration of these vital events. As such, the records themselves, how they are collected, with whom they may be shared, and how they may be used are governed by state laws. The Federal Government does not maintain a national database that contains all of this information.
Many organizations and millions of Americans use vital records or certified copies of them for legal, health, personal, and other purposes. Birth certificates are used to obtain official IDs, such as driver’s licenses and passports, as well as for school entry and qualifying for state and federal benefits. Death certificates are used to collect life insurance, stop benefit payments, and settle estates.
The information contained on birth and death certificates comes from a variety of sources. For birth, these are primarily hospitals and the mothers of newborns. Funeral directors are generally responsible for completing death certificates, based on information supplied by next of kin. Physicians, medical examiners, or coroners certify the cause and manner of death.
After data providers submit these data, the vital records jurisdictions then review process and officially register the event. The jurisdictions maintain the official registries of vital events, and issue certified copies of birth and death records. The jurisdictions also provide the Federal Government with selected vital records data to compile national health statistics, to facilitate secure Social Security number issuance for newborns, and to report individuals’ deaths.
Paper‑based death certificate systems contribute to inaccuracies and delay data availability. In such systems, funeral home staff often hand‑deliver records to physicians for signature, which is both time‑consuming and costly. Electronic death registration systems, or EDRS, are now replacing manual systems to better meet administrative and public health needs. To date, 37 vital records jurisdictions have implemented an EDRS. A chart showing that EDRS implementation by jurisdiction is included in my written statement.
An EDRS solves many long‑standing issues related to accuracy, security, and timeliness of death data. An EDRS includes built‑in real‑time edits and cross‑checks. Automatic reminders and work‑flow prompts notify the physician by email when a death certificate is ready for electronic signature. This results in more timely registration of the death, as well as faster submission of death records to SSA.
While vital records jurisdictions have made great strides in implementing EDRS, there is still much to be done. Installation of an EDRS in a vital records office is just one part. To be effective, all data providers, especially funeral homes, health care facilities, physicians and coroners must also use the EDRS. Full implementation of EDRS may take years, and involves a significant financial commitment by state health departments. Lack of adequate resources, both financial and human capital, are the biggest barriers to more widespread EDRS adoption.
In the past, SSA provided funding to many vital records jurisdictions to help support their EDRS implementation efforts. NAPHSIS estimates that $20 million is needed to complete EDRS implementation in all 57 vital records jurisdictions, and to increase EDRS use among data providers.
For your consideration, my written statement provides information about another electronic system, the electronic verification of vital events system, or EVVE, that Chairman Johnson mentioned. Developed by NAPHSIS with initial funding from SSA, EVVE is an online system that quickly, reliability, and securely verifies birth and death information in any participating vital records jurisdiction, without the need for a national database.
Several state and Federal agencies, including SSA, are currently using EVVE to verify birth certificate information. EVVE is a significant tool that can be used to verify the authenticity and accuracy of death certificate information.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify. I am happy to address your questions.
[The statement of Ms. Potrzebowski follows:]
*Chairman Johnson. Thank you, ma’am. You know, Mr. Pratt recommended we change the law to codify certain business access to the Death Master File, including state records. Can you tell Mr. Pratt the history of the powers assigned to the states and their legal authority?
*Ms. Potrzebowski. Well, I am certainly not a constitutional lawyer, Mr. Chairman.
*Chairman Johnson. No, but you do understand that. And what is the legal authority regarding vital records concerning the states?
*Ms. Potrzebowski. Right. So the states have the legal authority, because it is not mentioned in the Constitution. So that is clearly the states’ authority, to set the rules for registering the vital events, for determining how the data shall be used, the confidentiality of the information, and the sharing of that information with whomever they wish.
*Chairman Johnson. Yes. So each state is different, is it not?
*Ms. Potrzebowski. And every state is different. You know how that works.
*Chairman Johnson. Yes. And they probably have different records, too.
*Ms. Potrzebowski. Unfortunately, there is a little bit of variation. Most of the states have a general basic data set that they follow.
*Chairman Johnson. Mr. Agin, how did you connect the theft of your daughter’s Social Security number to the Death Master File?
*Mr. Agin. I mean this is my personal belief, based upon my research and based upon our discussions with other families.
When the information is so readily available to anybody with a computer, there is only several manners in which somebody could have found, number one, that my child died ‑‑ we do maintain a blog, so anybody who is following along, or people, I believe, troll these blogs to see how children are doing, could have connected the dots. And then I believe that people know that that information is readily available on these genealogical websites. So I think that that connects the dots, in terms of the readily available information.
The only other possible explanation for obtaining her Social Security number could be somebody at one of the institutions where she was treated that maintain her medical records. But, you know, I would like to believe that that is not the case.
*Chairman Johnson. No, I kind of agree with you on that.
You have heard the testimony of the other witnesses. Is there any reason that Social Security, the Commerce Department, or any Federal agency, for that matter, ought to be disclosing private death information to the general public?
*Mr. Agin. To the general public? In my opinion, no. I think that the Death Master File does have its obvious stated purposes, which include foreclosing fraud, as Mr. Pratt discussed. And I think that is a vital use of the Death Master File.
I think that the publication of the Death Master File in the manner in which we do it today is serving identity thefts with this type of information on a silver platter. There are several ways to try and go about foreclosing that: withhold individuals recently deceased for a period of time, disclose only a handful, the last four digits of the Social Security numbers. There is a number of manners and methods that I think would satisfy all the communities involved that use the Death Master File.
So, as it stands, why does somebody need my daughter’s full Social Security number, date of birth, date of death, full address, and her zip code? Absolutely not.
*Chairman Johnson. I hear you. Thank you for your testimony.
*Mr. Agin. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
*Chairman Johnson. Mr. Becerra, you are recognized.
*Mr. Becerra. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Mr. Agin, first I would like to begin with you and ask, because you have gone through this, it seems to me that our biggest issue is going to be in trying to convince a lot of the private sector entities that use this information that they have to covet the information once they get it.
You ‑‑ I would assume you believe that some of these private sector businesses need to get accurate information so that they can make sure that people don’t receive benefits, income that they are no longer eligible for, because someone has died, is deceased. But how do you constrain the use of the information?
And I am looking at this chart. I wouldn’t have guessed this. It shows the major customers for the Death Master File. We talked about those who help determine our genealogy. One percent. They constitute one percent of the customers who purchase this Death Master File information, your daughter’s information. The biggest customers for all those bits of data? Businesses. Then you have got the federal, state, city, county governments, financial organizations, health care organizations, insurance, education, research. And, at the end, genealogical.
[Insert of The Honorable Xavier Becerra follows:]
And so, I would imagine Mr. Pratt would say, “This is valuable information that helps us avoid fraud from the other side.” And so, is there something that you ‑‑ and you mentioned legislation that you are supportive of. Some people think that it is a little too narrow in its scope. And Mr. Pratt suggested, I think, some possible ways to address that.
Mr. ‑‑ is it Breyault?
*Mr. Breyault. Breyault, yes.
*Mr. Becerra. Breyault also suggested some potential changes.
Having heard your testimony, do you agree with what they have said could be a good way forward to try to have legislation that avoids the situation you and your wife faced?
*Mr. Agin. Thank you, Mr. Becerra. Absolutely. I think there is no question of balance that can be struck with respect to the lawful stated purposes for the use of the Death Master File.
As a parent who has gone through this, I am not interested in foreclosing the use of the Death Master File to go after other fraudulent uses and the financial institutions in the business sector who rely upon that data in ensuring that their claims are managed properly, that they are paying the right individuals, that they are not paying the wrong individuals.
Again, I think there are a number of ways to do that: stiffer penalties, registration for anybody who is interested in purchasing the information, certifying that they will not use it for widespread distribution.
With respect to the chart that you showed, regardless of whether or not the genealogical services only make up one percent of the purchasers, they are still the individuals who are putting it out for free on their websites. So anybody sitting in this room with a computer can find my daughter’s Social Security number. Anybody can find any of your relatives who have passed away. They can find their Social Security numbers.
*Mr. Becerra. Good point.
*Mr. Agin. So, regardless of the amount on that pie chart, I would submit to you that that is the largest factor for the commission of this type of fraud against individuals in my community.
So, I am very interested to strike a balance so that the lawful use of this information is not foreclosed.
*Mr. Becerra. And, Mr. Chairman, to me, when we passed that bipartisan bill out of this committee a while ago dealing with identity theft ‑‑ actually dealing with those who are still living ‑‑ we ran into a brick wall with the Financial Services Committee, because so many financial services companies were very concerned that we would close the door to their access to information they believe they need. And before you knew it, the bill was dead.
Mr. Pratt, my sense is that there are going to be a lot of folks out there in the business community who legitimately make use of this, including the folks who do genealogical studies, who say, “Wait a minute,” you know, this information is out there. What do we do to make sure that we address the legitimate concerns of those in the private sector that need this information, but still constrain its use?
I happen to agree with Mr. Agin, that I think you have ‑‑ and, Mr. Chairman, I would say that I think you have to act with a swift and stiff penalty against anyone who abuses this information. And I would love to have someone, some entity, be the poster child of what happens to you if you take Mr. Agin’s daughter’s information and use it the wrong way.
*Mr. Pratt. Again, I think we are starting to move down into the details of exactly how you accomplish ‑‑ I think the big goal ‑‑ there seems to be a lot of agreement on the large goal. There is a difference between the problem we have, which is, because of FOIA, the Social Security Administration, through Commerce, is disclosing the record to anybody. And some are making it available in a very public way, so that there is no process on the front end to evaluate why I want to have access to that record.
We are somewhere else on that pie chart that you held up. And that is why we feel very confident that there is a way to draw a distinction between, yes, I understand there may be some process by which we have to validate who we are and why we need the information for those reasons, and to stipulate those reasons. We live with some of that in the data world, always. And we are happy to work in that context, to try to find a way forward.
You are absolutely right. We need the information. We need the full Social. We have done studies where common names, amazingly enough, you can find two different Smiths with the same last four digits of a Social. And because a Death Master File annotation is a big event ‑‑ you either are dead or you are not; consumers generally don’t appreciate being declared deceased when they are not ‑‑ we really feel a full Social is important.
But we are happy to live ‑‑ like I said before, we live in a contract world, we live in a data security world. We live in a business‑to‑business context. We want to stop fraud. That is the motivation for doing this. There is no other business model we are trying to build that sort of colors outside those lines. I am really confident that there is a way to get this done. And it is different than perhaps the debate that we went through last time.
*Mr. Becerra. Yes, I think it is. I appreciate your words.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
*Chairman Johnson. Thank you for your questions. Mr. Marchant, you are recognized.
*Mr. Marchant. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Mr. Breyault, is that the way you say it?
*Mr. Breyault. Yes, that is correct, sir.
*Mr. Marchant. I thought I heard you say that 10.2 percent of children have had their identity compromised in some way.
*Mr. Breyault. They have had their Social Security number misused by someone else.
*Mr. Marchant. Okay. Do you have that from a study?
*Mr. Breyault. Yes, sir. It is from Carnegie Mellon University. It is a researcher by the name of Richard Power. The full citation is in my written statement, sir.
*Mr. Marchant. Okay. Well, thank you very much. For that ‑‑ Mr. O’Carroll, for that small group of people, or children that for some reason have not got an assigned Social Security number, how do they appear, when they pass away, on the Death Master File? Or do they not appear?
*Mr. O’Carroll. What will happen is with the state match, the state is going to match against Social Security numbers. And if the child wasn’t issued a Social Security number, that wouldn’t then be part of the Death Master File for SSA, since they weren’t recognized with an SSN yet on that one. So that is part of the matching process that we do.
But as you said before, in the case of your grandchildren, virtually every child now is, at the time of birth, being enumerated. And it is an extremely rare occasion that a child wouldn’t be enumerated.
*Mr. Marchant. So any parent that found themselves in the same situation as Mr. Agin, there would not be a situation where they could protect themselves ‑‑ probably because of your health benefits, enrolling them in a health care plan, you would have to get that information?
*Mr. O’Carroll. The enumeration of birth has been a process with Social Security now for a number of years. It has been accepted by most of the medical institutions, and it is a very effective way of enumerating people. What was happening in the past was, within the first year for tax purposes or whatever, the parents were coming in for a Social Security number. So, by doing it this way, it is a more controlled way and effective way of doing it.
So, there really isn’t an opt‑out, at least to my knowledge. I am sure you could, but it is very, very rare that anybody has.
*Mr. Marchant. Well, I think that parents find themselves in the situation where this information is out there. I think it is vital that we move quickly on this. I do understand the ‑‑ I think we will find ‑‑ I think this committee will find very quickly that that one percent group that is on that chart will begin to be very vocal, and we need to make sure that they understand the difficulty that we are dealing with.
We faced a similar problem at the ‑‑ when I was in the state legislature about the release of vital information. And we experienced a ‑‑ it was a ‑‑ quite a fight to ultimately strike the balance between these groups. But I am committed to do it.
Mr. Chairman, I appreciate you bringing this issue to the forefront, and committed to help you with it.
*Chairman Johnson. Thank you, Mr. Marchant.
Let me ask one more question, Mr. Pratt. The Death Master File has always been an incomplete record of deaths, as Social Security will admit. The Death Master File may be a starting point for death databases, but you got to confirm the data. What are your other sources of death data?
*Mr. Pratt. For example, in the case of credit reporting, when an individual passes away, then the trustee or the executor of the estate will likely begin to notify financial institutions in order to pay out that last bill. And those financial institutions will report that data back into the credit reporting system, as well.
But it is an incomplete system. Our concern here, of course, is losing the Death Master File removes just another critical component, and we are more blind than we otherwise would be. It is true, there are going to be times where we will still, in this country, not know that somebody is deceased until much ‑‑
*Chairman Johnson. Aren’t you able to get the death data from the state?
*Mr. Pratt. States are ‑‑ you know, it is a very disintermediated process. It is very hard to go out and gather that information on a state‑by‑state basis. There are ‑‑ we have even heard here testimony about new technologies that may be making that easier on a go‑forward basis. Some of these technologies appear to be look‑up ‑‑ in other words, a record‑by‑record, rather than bulk types of delivery technologies.
And so, Mr. Chairman, there may be ways, going forward, to improve and build on what we have today. We are just trying to preserve what we have today.
*Chairman Johnson. Well, you, I am sure, are willing to pay something for it. What price do you think Mr. Agin would put on his daughter’s Social Security number?
*Mr. Pratt. Yes, I don’t think there is any price. I am a parent myself, and I have had a number of my board members who are parents call me directly about this very same thing, Mr. Chairman. We all are focused on trying to find the right way forward.
*Chairman Johnson. Okay. Well, we are going to work on it, and Mr. Becerra has agreed to help me. And we will do that.
I thank you all for being here today, and for your testimony. We do need to act now to stop thieves from exploiting our deceased loved ones. And, Mr. Becerra, I look forward to working with you on this issue.
With that, I thank you all for being here; the committee stands adjourned.
[Whereupon, at 10:23 a.m., the subcommittee was adjourned.]
Member Questions For The Record
The Honorable Michael J. Astrue
Stuart K. Pratt
The Honorable Patrick P. O’Carroll, Jr.
Dr. Patricia Potrzebowski
Public Submission For The Record
Dee Dee King