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Keeping Watch Over Massachusetts Public Records
Let's Get Ready for Capitol Hill's 2012-2013 Congress
The U.S. House of Representatives in session, www.house.gov.
Every indication so far is that this year will again see efforts to close the SSDI in two ways: first by legislation to close it for three years to all but fraud investigators; second by legislation to make the Freedom of Information Act inapplicable to the Social Security Administration (it was by FOIA that the SSDI was opened two decades ago). Either method would work against genealogists.
On Capitol Hill, Rep. Sam Johnson (R TX 3) was reappointed chair of the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee. The announcement can be read at http://samjohnson.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=316913.
At this time, at least one bill has been filed using text that would close the SSDI for two to three years. Rep. Richard Nugent (R FL 11) filed this bill, known as H.R.295. You can use the Library of Congress THOMAS portal to find the bill’s text and to track its passage at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/thomas. Select “bill number” and type in HR295. The resulting page will provide many access points: to the bill text, to the current committee assignments, etc.
Rep. Mike Capuano (D MA 7) is planning to submit a similar bill. His office has been approached by immigration and tax people in government to submit a bill covering their issues. We were able to contact his Issues Director Kate Auspitz in order to pass on information showing that the core issue is inter-agency communication rather than access to the social security numbers of dead people. We made a case for genealogical access during the critical three-year waiting period for compassionate reasons.
While Congressman Capuano sees merit in our arguments, we will need to make those arguments again at the committee hearings in order to have change happen. We explained that such testimony had been purposefully cut off last year. His office pointed out that he is in the political minority in the House and not able to force a committee chair to permit our testimony. We need to keep our community ready to submit testimony and to be able to articulate the issues when the time comes. So how do we learn that?
I sent the following email to Kate Auspitz. It contains links to online information having to do with the fraud issues that come up when SSDI access is discussed. I am sharing it here. Genealogists who care about access should study these links. We need to be able to talk off-the-cuff about this issue by supplying accurate statistics and information.
Email from Barbara Mathews to Kate Auspitz, 30 January 2013, 2:58 PM:
First, I wanted to make sure you know about the compassionate work of forensic genealogists. This comes in the form of finding living people as next of kin or as DNA-match donors for the dead. This is often time critical. Their work would not be protected under H.R.295.
The first link is to a group of volunteers helping county coroners locate next of kin:
The second is to show some of the work genealogists do for the Department of Defense. The details of this work are kept confidential, but one leading investigator referred to it an interview with AARP:
My study of the SSDI closure issue indicates that cross-agency communications (or the lack of it) is at the heart of stopping the illegal use of SSNs. The SSNs of dead people are small compared to the illegal use of SSNs of living people. Better communication and more availability would work better.
Much of the tax fraud has been located in the hot spot of Tampa, Florida. Interagency communication is so bad that postal workers leaving 1000 or more tax refund cards at one address were helpless to stop the IRS from continuing to send payments there. Tampa police officer Sal Augeri testified at one of Sen. Nelson's early subcommittee hearings last year. He stated that fraudsters had moved on from the SSDI to other sources.
I've divided the links below into groups based on aspects of the topic.
Use of SSNs of Dead AND Living People
The statistics on children alone are that about 127,000 living children have their SSNs stolen each year, and about 200 dead children. From this statistic alone you can see that the problem is systemic and will not be solved by closing the SSDI.
ABC news says that 1 in 10 living children have their social security numbers stolen. Their numbers are NOT in the Social Security Death Index.
NBC news wrote a very long post about the issues involved in this. Inter-agency communications is one of the areas it shows as problematic.
Several genealogy websites last year eliminated the social security numbers shown in the SSDI, but kept names and dates. For most genealogists this is a useful compromise. It was voluntarily arrived at. It hampers forensic genealogists doing the compassionate work I discussed but it does keep the millions of hobbyists happy.
Inaccuracies in the Death Master File: Guilty until you prove yourself innocent
Every year the Social Security Administration, generally through a data entry or keying error, declares living people to be dead. Because the Federal Trade Commission's Red Flag Rules mandate that credit and banking institutions check this file before opening accounts, this error makes a living hell of people's lives. They themselves are required to prove they are living. The backup is so large in Florida's SSA office that appointments are required months ahead.
If Congressman Capuano wishes to make a positive impact on his constituants lives, improving accuracy checks within SSA and changing the priority SSA puts on fixing things would be two places to start. CNN states that 1 in 200 deaths is misreported in the SSDI.
Genealogists Concerned About Closure
During the period in which the Senate and House were holding hearings last year, many genealogists blogged about the issue. One genealogist blogged an overview of several postings, so I'll begin your travel there:
The Massachusetts Genealogical Council
The Massachusetts Genealogical Council is an umbrella organization for genealogy and historical societies in Massachusetts. We have about two dozen member societies; they have about 30,000 members in total. My Civil Records Co-Director is Mary Ellen Grogan. She and I are volunteers who monitor records access and preservation issues for our colleagues. I've copied both Mary Ellen and our president Polly Kimmitt on this email.
For an historical overview of issues relating to consumer ID theft, the Massachusetts Genealogical Council wrote a white paper several years ago. It addresses concerns about open vital records, but it might be helpful to have it as a history of how the government's understanding of ID theft has evolved over time.
Yours, Barbara Mathews
Civil Records Co-Director
Massachusetts Genealogical Council