According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), more than 6.5 million people are apparently more than 112 years old.

Life expectancies are getting longer, but doesn’t that seem a little excessive?

It turns out that the problem is caused by inaccurate paper records, according to an audit performed by the Office of the Inspector General. Nearly all the Social Security numbers are from paper records generated before the agency started using electronic records in 1972. Many of them contain errors, such as multiple birthdates and bits of information about different family members, Sean Brune, a senior adviser to the agency’s deputy commissioner for budget, finance, quality and management, told the Associated Press.

“The records in this review are extremely old, decades-old, and unreliable,” says Brune.

In particular, the records often don’t accurately report when people died. “The Social Security Administration generates a list of dead people to help public agencies and private companies know when Social Security numbers are no longer valid for use,” explains the AP.

“The list is called the Death Master File, which includes the name, Social Security number, date of birth and date of death for people who have died. The list is widely used by employers, financial firms, credit reporting agencies and security firms. Federal agencies and state and local governments rely on it to police benefit payments. But none of the 6.5 million people cited by the inspector general’s report was on the list.”

And updating those 6.5 million records would be expensive.

Part of the problem is that some states, which report the death information to the SSA, also don’t have electronic records. “A dozen states still don’t have electronic filing systems, and tens of millions of death records remain in paper form,” writes Dan Diamond in Forbes.

Having a whole lot of open-ended, unused Social Security numbers out there has other problems:

  1. Identity thieves can use the numbers with impunity.

The numbers could be used to report wages, open bank accounts, obtain credit cards or claim fraudulent tax refunds, writes the AP.

  1. Incorrect numbers throw off statistics and medical research.

“A 2010 study called ‘I am Not Dead Yet: Identification of False-Positive Matches to Death Master File’ examined a pool of 160,000 patients,” Diamond writes. “Researchers found that as many as 15 percent of those patients still had new data entered weeks after their reported ‘death,’ suggesting that reports of their demise had been premature.

“‘Mistakes are a concern, because death is a relatively rare outcome,’ study author Alexander Turchin, a researcher at Harvard Medical School and Partners Healthcare System, told Scripps-Howard in 2011. ‘If just a few deaths are erroneous, the conclusions of the study may be in error as well.’”

  1. Erroneous checks could be sent out.

For now, only 13 of the 6.5 million people are still receiving Social Security benefits, but as much as $125 billion in erroneous payments could be paid out through various government agencies (though, to be fair, it’s not always due to missing information in the Death Master File, points out Michael Filtzik in the LA Times). In addition, state and local governments, as well as private companies, also rely on the Death Master File, the report notes.

At the same time, Social Security can’t just arbitrarily decide that everyone over 100, say, is automatically dead, because there are people that old. “We can’t post information to our records based on presumption,” Brune told the AP.

People who are actually alive are occasionally accidentally listed as dead—about 9,000 of them per year.

Judy Rivers, a communications specialist living in Alabama, has been listed dead twice, once in 2001 and again in 2008. She had trouble finding a job and renting an apartment because her identity couldn’t be verified; she also had trouble withdrawing money from her bank accounts, all of which forced her to live in her car for months, reports a 60 Minutes report on the subject.

“I could never have imagined I would reach the point of hopelessness, homelessness, financial destitution, loss of reputation and credibility, unable to obtain a job, an apartment, a student loan or even a cell phone,” CBS quoted her as saying.

The Office of the Inspector General and the SSA are currently arguing about how important it is to update millions of formerly paper records when those people aren’t receiving Social Security benefits anyway.

“We believe correcting records for nonbeneficiaries who have a date of birth before June 16, 1901 would divert resources from our highest priority, ensuring and improving payment accuracy,” the SSA said in response to the report. “The recommendations would create a significant manual and labor-intensive workload and provide no benefit to the administration of our programs.”

Meanwhile, the SSA indicates that continuous development of electronic records is helping to deal with the problem. “We continue to work to expand the use of Electronic Death Registration (EDR),” the SSA said.

“This streamlined electronic process, which began in 2002, allows States to match the name and the SSN of a deceased person before submitting death records to us. Thus, EDR provides us with more accurate and timely death reports, and universal implementation could largely eliminate errors in the death reporting process.”

Electronic records save the day again.

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