Unreported deaths undoubtedly rank as the Social Security Administration’s number one “Most Gruesome Fraud Management Failures.” Hardly a month goes by without the discovery of a grizzly new case. Usually some elderly person is found long-dead of natural causes in their own home or that of a close relative — frequently years after death. The death was never reported. Remains have been discovered tucked into beds, placed in freezers, and even sitting on toilets. Meanwhile loving sons or daughters continued to collect the deceased’s Social Security checks — sometimes for decades. One Brooklyn man is serving up to 41 years for impersonating his dead mom. He donned a wig and wore her dresses to collect $115,000 in her Social Security payments and rent subsidies.
Cutting off the flow of benefits when a Social Security recipient dies is important to protect program finances from going to people who aren’t entitled to them. The Social Security Administration maintains a list of deceased beneficiaries called the “Death Master File” to help public agencies and private companies know when a Social Security number is no longer valid. Keeping that list up to date is vitally important. But a new report from the Inspector General of the Social Security Administration confirms that the Social Security Administration indeed has a major problem.
The report found at least 6.5 million active Social Security numbers belonging to people who are now at least 112 years old. While people are living longer these days, they’re not living that much longer. According to a story by Stephen Ohlemacher of the Associated Press, as of last fall there were only 42 people known to be that old in the entire world.
According to the Inspector General’s report, of the 6.5 million active numbers, the Social Security Administration had issued payments to 266 of the number holders, but a review found that only 13 people were likely to be still alive and collecting benefits. In addition to the problem of payments to the dead, the balance of the 6.5 million active numbers pose a risk because they could be stolen to claim fraudulent tax refunds and to work illegally. The IRS has estimated that it paid out $5.8 billion in fraudulent tax refunds in 2013 because of identity theft.
When the Office of Inspector General matched the 6.5 million Social Security numbers against the Social Security Administrations file, it found 67,000 of the numbers were used to report wages for people other than the cardholders, a sign the numbers were used for illegal work. According to the Associated Press, one Social Security number was used 613 different times. An additional 194 numbers were used at least 50 times each.
The Inspector General found $3.1 billion in wages and self -employment income was reported in tax years 2006-2011 under the 67,000 numbers. The wage reports were placed in the Social Security Earnings Suspense File. The problem with placing these numbers into the Earnings Suspense File, however, allows for the earnings to potentially be claimed and used for determining benefits in the future.
It makes no sense for the Social Security Administration to allow Social Security numbers older than 112 to remain active indefinitely, without investigating the status of the beneficiary. The oldest verified lifespan of any individual to have ever lived is 124.
Sources: “Report: Social Security Numbers Active For 6.5 Million People Aged 112,” Stephen Ohlemacher, Associated Press, March 14, 2015. “Man Impersonates Dead Mother To Collect $115,000 In Social Security, Rent Subsidies,” New York Daily News, June 17, 2009.