Is the Death Master File on life support?

The Social Security Death Master File may be maintained by the government, not the Grim Reaper – but it remains a valuable investigative tool. When a person dies, funeral homes, hospitals and /or families report the data to the Social Security Administration. In 1980, a court ruling ordered the government to make the DMF data publicly available – and until last week, anyone who paid the fee could access the 86 million names.

Now Congress has approved a provision that will limit access to ‘certified’ users for the three years following a person’s death. Supporters say that this ruling will help avoid cases of fraud – and identity thieves swiping social security numbers of recently deceased individuals.

The Social Security Administration site reads: ‘Subscribers must have a legitimate fraud prevention interest, or have a legitimate business purpose pursuant to a law, governmental rule, regulation, or fiduciary duty in order to be certified under the program.’

I’ve spent a huge part of my career detecting fraud, and I completely sympathize with families who have had sensitive data stolen. But as an investigator, I know how invaluable the Death Master File can be to cases.

In the past month alone, I have used it to confirm that a client’s long-lost relative was deceased, help with a probate case and help to determine the identity of a criminal who was using multiple social security numbers.

The site now says that in order to register, ‘certified users’ must pay a $200 certification fee and sign a user agreement. If they are approved, they can then pay per number of online searches. The amount ranges from $600 for up to 1,000 searches to over $7,000 for the entire file on CD Rom.

I personally feel that the ruling is short-sighted. The Death Master File helps researchers complete family trees, PIs solve criminal cases and journalists write accurate stories. Perhaps if the IRS wants to crack down on identity fraud, they should focus on protecting the living victims of identity fraud rather than limiting information about dead people.

The National Technical Information Service (NTIS) is creating a temporary certification program, so this is a developing story.


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