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What Happens When Bureaucracy Accidentally Kills You?


OK, nobody likes bureaucratic red tape, but it's usually not fatal. Aviva DeKornfeld from our Planet Money podcast team has the story of what happens when bureaucracy accidentally declares you're dead.

AVIVA DEKORNFELD, BYLINE: For Judy Rivers, that was in 2008. She walked into a bank in Alabama. She applied for a new savings account. And when the woman at the bank started to process Judy's paperwork, she got this weird look on her face.

JUDY RIVERS: She stopped and turned around and said, this is really odd. This report says that you're dead.

DEKORNFELD: Yeah, dead. Judy laughed. The woman ran the report again. And again, it said Judy was still dead.

RIVERS: That's when I began to get a little nervous about what was going on.

DEKORNFELD: Judy had accidentally been placed on something called the Death Master File. This is a list created by the Social Security Administration of every person with a Social Security number who is dead - more than a hundred million names.

RONA LAWSON: The main purpose that Social Security uses it for is to stop benefits for people when they die.

DEKORNFELD: That is Rona Lawson. She works for the Social Security Administration. And the Social Security Administration adds names to the Death Master File by collecting records from places like funeral homes, hospitals, state governments. Sometimes they just receive a call from someone's family member reporting a death. And Rona says, unfortunately, mistakes do get made. The most common mistake is that a person who is actually dead never makes it onto the file.

LAWSON: It's been, I think, around 16 million deaths that we need added to the file.

DEKORNFELD: And many of those 16 million dead people are still receiving benefit checks from the government each month. The less common mistake is the reverse - when a living person, like Judy Rivers, somehow ends up on the list.

RIVERS: There is honestly no way to explain it.

DEKORNFELD: No one's really sure how Judy ended up on the list. It may have been as simple as a clerical error. The Social Security Administration estimates that around 12,000 Americans are accidentally placed on this list every year. And as Judy learned, being dead ruins your life.

RIVERS: Basically, you become what we term a cyber ghost. You no longer exist in the digital world.

DEKORNFELD: She couldn't access her bank accounts. She says it stopped her from getting a job. She even got accused of stealing her own identity.

RIVERS: I used a debit card at a Walmart, and they called the police for identity theft.

DEKORNFELD: Even after the mistake had been fixed, it took years for Judy to get her life back because banks and credit card companies use the Death Master File to prevent fraud, but they don't always use the latest version of the list. So Judy is always prepared, just in case anyone declares her dead again.

RIVERS: In my glove box, I carry a copy of my birth certificate and a certified letter from the Social Security department stating that I am Judy Rivers, and I am alive and well. I never go anywhere without it.

DEKORNFELD: For NPR News, I'm Aviva DeKornfeld.

(SOUNDBITE OF RATATAT'S "CHERRY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aviva DeKornfeld
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