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The Death Master File

Even the dead fall victim to identity theft 

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Identity Theft Social Security Card
Jill Fromer/E+/Getty Images
One of the government's most effective weapons against financial fraud -- and now terrorism -- is a massive database of dead people called the "Death Master" file.

Maintained by the Social Security Administration (SSA), the Death Master file contains information on over 65 million deceased individuals, most of whom were issued a social security number during their lifetimes.

Assuming the identity of a dead person has long been a favorite ploy of criminals. Everyday, "dead" people apply for credit cards, file for tax refunds, try to buy guns and any number of other fraudulent activities. Sometimes they get away with it. More often, however, they are foiled by the Death Master file.

Government agencies, financial, investigative, credit reporting organization, medical research and other industries access the SSA Death Master file in an effort to prevent fraud and, since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, comply with the USA Patriot Act.

By methodically running financial, credit, payment and other applications against the Death Master File, the financial community, insurance companies, security firms and state and local governments are better able to identify and prevent identity fraud. The USA Patriot Act requires an effort to verify the identity of customers, including procedures to verify customer identity and maintaining records of information used to verify identity. A user may now access an online search application or maintain a raw data version of the file. The online service is updated weekly and the weekly and monthly updates are offered electronically via https, reducing handling and production time.

Medical researchers, hospitals, oncology programs all need to track former patients and study subjects. Investigative firms use the data to identify persons, or the death of persons, in the course of their investigations. Pension funds, insurance organizations, Federal, State and Local governments and others responsible for payments to recipients/retirees all need to know if they might be sending checks to deceased persons. Individuals may search for loved ones, or work toward growing their family trees. Professional and amateur genealogists can search for missing links.

With records of over 65 million deaths reported to SSA, the Death Master file includes some or all of the following information on each decedent: social security number, name, date of birth, date of death, state or country of residence (2/88 and prior), ZIP code of last residence, and ZIP code of lump sum payment.

Since Social Security does not have the death records of all persons, the absence of a particular person from the Death Master file is not absolute proof that the person is alive.

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