Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Geneaologists Concerned about Threat to SSDI Access

A White House Petition to stop fraudulent tax refund claims is supported by genealogists, who are alarmed by the possibility that public access to the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) could end. WLA members  Mary Rieder, President of the  Wisconsin State Genealogical Society, and Anita Doering, Archivist at the La Crosse Public Library, recently brought this issue to WLA's attention. Here's Mary's discussion of what lack of access to SSDI would mean to genealogists:
Would you believe that the IRS doesn’t automatically check Social Security Numbers on tax returns before issuing a refund check?  Because of this, people have been using the SSNs of deceased people to claim tax refunds.  Two weeks ago a grieving father testified before the House Ways and Means Committee that someone had stolen the SSN of his recently deceased daughter and used it to file for a tax refund.  When the legitimate parents filed their tax return to claim some of the medical expenses they had paid for the child’s care, they were refused because that number had already been issued a refund.  So, in its infinite wisdom, the Committee is considering entirely closing the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) from public use rather than telling the IRS to do their job and check the numbers.  The main problem with this is that many businesses, insurance companies, loan officers, banks, etc., routinely use the SSDI for what it’s supposed to be used for:  stopping the fraudulent use of SSNs.  If the federal government closes off public access to it, more fraud will happen, not less.  No one has presented proof that these SSNs are being stolen from the publicly-accessible SSDI.  They could also be taken from dumpster-diving, unscrupulous staff stealing the numbers in banks or medical facilities, or even someone looking over someone else’s shoulder while they’re filling out a form requiring the number, so closing the SSDI isn’t necessarily going to solve the problem. 
This issue has become a big one with the genealogical community because genealogists also routinely use the SSDI to gather information on death dates and parents’ names.  By looking up a person’s SSN you can request a copy of the SS-5 form the person filled out when they applied for an SSN which often gives further family information such as parents names, address at the time of application, etc.  Forensic genealogists use this information to assist them in locating surviving family members of soldiers whose remains have been recovered (some from as far back as WWII and the Korean War), and helping coroners identify next of kin of unclaimed bodies, so that the family can have some closure on what happened to their loved one.  Megan Smolenyak is one of these forensic genealogists, and she wrote a great blog post about this in December:  http://megansmolenyak.posterous.com/are-we-going-to-lose-the-social-security-deat  after Ancestry.com (the company of the “shaky leaf” you’ve been seeing on TV ads – but don’t get me started on how EASY they make genealogy look!) shut down the free version of SSDI which had been on their RootsWeb site, moved everything behind their pay wall at their commercial site, and redacted the SSNs from any record for a person who had died within the last 10 years.
The Ways and Means Committee held a public hearing on the issue on February 2nd, but they restricted who could speak publicly at the hearing, and no one from the genealogical community, or even in favor of keeping this information public, was allowed to testify.  In light of that, the Records Preservation and Access Committee (RPAC), a joint committee of the National Genealogical Society, Federation of Genealogical Societies, and International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, has started a petition on the WhiteHouse.gov site asking the White House to require that the IRS start checking SSNs before issuing refund checks as soon as possible to prevent fraud, preferably this tax season.  The petition needs 25,000 signatures by March 8th, however, or it won’t even be looked at.  Only about 3,000 people have signed it as of today, though, so I’m sending this out to ask you to look at it and sign it if you agree.  You’ll have to create an account on the site to sign it, which asks for your name, e-mail address and zip code.  The site will then e-mail you a message, and you have to click a link in that message to activate your account.  You can then go back to the survey and sign it.  It will display your first name, first initial of your last name, your city and state, and the date you signed.  (I’m #50, if you want to scroll down that far! ;-)

For more information (from genealogists’ points of view), please see the RPAC blog at http://www.fgs.org/rpac/, and a blog post which a genealogist from Illinois, Michael John Neill, who spoke at our WSGS Fall Seminar a couple of years ago, put up recently at http://rootdig.blogspot.com/2012/02/my-take-on-ssdi.html.

The petition is online at http://wh.gov/khE.  Please feel free to pass this message on to anyone else you think might be interested (especially you librarian-types! ;-).  Writing to your federal legislators about this issue will also help bring it to their attention.

Thank you.
--Mary Rieder, President, Wisconsin State Genealogical Society

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