Restrict the Death Master File?

     Sadly, there is an effort underway, led by U.S. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, to restrict access to the Death Master File.

     Basically, what happens is this: a criminal uses a Social Security number from Death Master File to e-file a fake tax return of some teenager. I.R.S. does not check W-2 forms against what the employer filed, and does not check the Social Security number against the Death Master File, but just blindly sends free money to the bank account on the fraudulent electronic return.

     Believe it or not, Senator Nelson thinks the solution to this is to restrict access to the Death Master File.

     Actually, the solution to all identity theft problems is to require identification. Too many banks allow criminals to call up from a public telephone and apply for a credit card, claiming to be you, but asking to have the card sent to your “new” address.

     As for the Death Master File, a better system of tracking deaths is needed. Congress does have Constitutional power over State death records, as follows:

     Article. IV.

     Section. 1.

     Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State. And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof.

     The best solution would be for the States to publish, on a secure website, their death records as the deaths take place.

     Privacy concerns are very real. The medical cause of death, the home address of the baby and therefore of the parents, and other information on a death certificate might not be suitable for public disclosure. However, the States need to keep a published database accessible to anyone, giving the decedent’s name at death, maiden name, birth date, death date, Social Security number and State death certificate number. Any Social Security number on such a database would be useless if the person to whom it is offered bothers to check against the same database.

     Congress could mandate that these records be published in .CSV format, or simply specify that such publication is sufficient legal proof. Using a simple script, anybody could download all such databases from all the States and merge them into a single file. When a hospital patient dies, the information should be entered into the database promptly, and published on an e-mail list to which anybody could freely subscribe. Machines would interpret the e-mails as received and add the deceased to any privately maintained database, and before somebody is shot down for a bank account, the bankers could click the link and make sure the information is validly posted on the State’s secure website. A procedure for nullifying a death record would also be needed, for those cases where a corpse has been misidentified, or the extremely rare case of a person waking up on the embalming table. Mitt Romney was pronounced dead at a traffic wreck in France, and the cop wrote Il est mort on Romney’s passport to prevent identity theft.

What is needed are some heavy lawsuits against banks that freeze the bank account of a living person, causing the rent check to bounce, causing the victim to get evicted, just because of the Death Master File. Bankers need something better. They also need to be held liable when they cause the victims of identity theft to suffer because the bankers never asked the crook for identification. Bank cards should be sent registered mail, restricted delivery, requiring postal employees to check identification before delivering them. Usinf your birth date or Social security number as a PIN or security password is unforgivably sloppy.

     Insurance companies have been sued for not issuing life insurance payments when somebody dies, because the family never knew the person had insurance, or didn't know which company. The insurance companies promptly discontinued annuities when a person appeared in Death Master File, but they did not use the same resource to make sure they paid death benefits. However, the Death Master File contains names of thousands of living persons added in error, which leads to major disruptions in their lives when their credit cards and bank accounts get frozen. Bankers have no way to confirm the death because Death Master File contains no source details. A database of State death records, with legal validity, would solve this.

     In the mean time, the Death Master File is a useful tool for genealogy, for measuring the effectiveness of medical treatments by tracking survival rates, and to prevent identity theft. The Social Security number is needed by genealogists, to request a copy of the original application, in order to learn the person’s place of birth. Blame those who fail to use Death Master File. Don’t penalize those who do.

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