Much of the Social Security Administration’s information on who’s dead and who isn’t is “inaccurate, incomplete or untimely” and could “lead to improper payments,” according to a government audit.
The report by the Government Accountability Office found numerous errors – including recording beneficiaries’ ages at deaths as between 115 and 195 year old -- and cases where the agency recorded the death a decade or longer after it occurred. Such problems may also affect the payments issued by other federal agencies that rely heavily on Social Security data.
Zombies walk the streets during a "zombie survival" contest Dec. 1, 2013 in Spain. A U.S. government audit found the Social Security Administration risks making payments to people who have been dead for years. (Getty Images/Pablo Blazquez Dominguez)
What’s more, the Social Security Administration has done little to correct the matter, according to the GAO.
“Agency officials told us SSA has never investigated how these errors occurred or whether they may affect payments to Social Security and other federal program beneficiaries,” the GAO report stated. “They did not think these types of errors would have resulted in improper benefit payments because they involved persons recorded as deceased.”
Most other federal agencies rely on data from the Social Security Administration to make payments to individuals. In fiscal year 2012, about $108 billion in improper federal payments were issued, according to the Office of Management and Budget. In one case, more than $500,000 in federal retirement benefits were being paid to a dead beneficiary’s son over the course of 37 years because of bad federal record-keeping.
“SSA’s methods for processing death reports may result in inaccurate, incomplete, or untimely information for users of its death data. Consequently, this could lead to improper payments if benefit-paying agencies rely on this data,” said the GAO report, which was released Dec. 27. “The specific procedures include (1) verifying a limited portion of death reports, (2) not including death reports that do not match with the Numident [Numerical Identification System] file, and (3) not performing additional reviews of reports of deaths that occurred years or decades in the past.”
It’s not a new problem. In a separate audit last year, Social Security's own inspector general found that 1.2 million dead beneficiaries were not on the agency’s death data file.
For its part, the agency says it’s working on correcting the problem through more technology, greater transparency, and improved sharing of information with other federal agencies.
“We believe that the relatively small percentage of errors have minimal impact on the agency or the Federal Government,” Social Security Administration Deputy Chief of Staff Katherine Thornton said in a letter responding to the GAO. “We recognize, however, that errors can cause hardships to members of the public affected by them. To help reduce errors even further, over the years we have used technology to increase timeliness and accuracy of our collection of death information
The audit also found Social Security death reports submitted in 2013 were frequently misdated.
“We found about 500 records in which the date of death recorded had occurred in 2011 or earlier; in about 200 of these, the date of death was recorded to be 10 or more years before SSA received the death report,” the GAO said. “For example, in 11 of the cases, the date of death was in 1976; in another 11, the date was 2004. This is of concern because, if these dates of death are accurate, SSA and other agencies may have been at risk of paying benefits to these individuals for long periods after they died.”
Other errors the GAO cited included, “130 records where the recorded date of death was before the date of birth; 1,941 records where the recorded age at death was between 115 and 195; and 1,826 records where the recorded death preceded 1936, the year SSN’s were first issued, although these decedents had SSNs assigned to them.”