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Keeping Watch Over Massachusetts Public Records
Testimony Submitted by MGC Regarding Senate Bill S-1534
2 April 2012
Senate Committee on Finance
Attn. Editorial and Document Section
Dirksen Senate Office Bldg.
Washington, DC 20510-6200
To: US Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), Chair: US Senate Finance Committee, Subcommittee on Fiscal Responsibility & Economic Growth
From: Massachusetts Genealogical Council, Polly FitzGerald Kimmitt, CGSM, President
Re: Testimony for hearing on "Tax Fraud by Identity Theft, Part 2: Status, Progress, and Potential Solutions," regarding the Identity Theft and Tax Fraud Prevention Act (S.1534), held Tuesday, March 20, 2012, 10:00 AM, 215 Dirksen Senate Office Building.
The Massachusetts Genealogical Council (MGC) is an umbrella organization representing more than 36,000 members of genealogical and historical societies who utilize current and historical records to determine kinship. Whether residents of the Commonwealth or descendants of early Massachusetts settlers now living in all fifty states, we wish the Social Security Death Master File (DMF) to remain un-redacted and accessible to the public.
Senate Bill 1534 goes a long way in curbing tax fraud by correcting some of the more egregious problems within the IRS and in law enforcement practices, particularly in Florida, where the bulk of the abuse takes place. The one measure that will hinder rather than help this effort is removal of access to the Death Master File.
While we are in agreement that there are significant problems within the Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, and local law enforcement, we need to ensure that legislation proposed to rectify this problem will not have dangerous, if unintended, consequences.
As a tool for research in the genealogical field, the Death Master File is used to determine kinship in myriad ways, just a few of which follow.
• In 2009, Congress mandated that the US military hire genealogists to determine and locate next of kin of servicemen lost in previous conflicts. Genealogical case workers find next of kin and DNA donors in each serviceman’s family to aid with identification of repatriated remains. The Death Master File is absolutely critical to this research.
• Unclaimed Persons, a group of over 400 volunteer genealogical case workers, assists medical examiners and coroners across the county in finding next of kin for unclaimed remains being stored in their facilities. Like other governmental agencies, coroners are overworked, understaffed and handling large case loads. Unclaimed Persons volunteers locate next of kin of the deceased so that remains can be released instead of remaining in the government's possession for an indeterminate amount of time.
• Attorneys and financial institutions employ the services of genealogists in probate, tax and heir-search cases. Again, the DMF is critical to this research.
• Physicians use the DMF to locate family members who can supply necessary information to help with diagnoses. Many lives have been saved through donations of blood and bone marrow possible only from family members. People with hidden genetic diseases can be alerted early enough to start preventive care which can add years to lives.
We are in full agreement that we must do everything we can to stop criminals from perpetrating tax fraud via identity theft. It is vital to recognize that the Death Master file was actually made public in order to curb this abuse. It is precisely where any American citizen or business should go to check for bogus use of social security numbers. Any bill that attempts to curb identify theft and correct errors within the SSA must not contravene the original reason for the creation of the DMF: to provide a check on identities and assure that the social security numbers of deceased individuals are not being used fraudulently.
And let us remember that the DMF should only contain numbers of deceased individuals. The fact that the SSA incorrectly reports deaths of living individuals shows a need to correct practices within the SSA, not completely remove access to the DMF. If we look at the facts we see that the amount of fraud using social security numbers of deceased Americans is minute in comparison with the amount via living Americans erroneously introduced into the system either by SSA negligence or criminal fraud. Removing the DMF just eliminates one way for the public to verify a number, a right which was granted to all Americans by the Federal courts in 1978 as a result of a lawsuit filed by Mr. Ronald Perholtz based on the Freedom of Information Act.
If we are to solve this problem it is essential to first critically examine several points.
1. Countless professions and industries across the nation are heavily reliant on the DMF: health care providers, the military, financial institutions, attorneys, insurance agencies, universities, funeral directors, credit agencies, and especially governmental agencies. While access would probably be granted to some, the use of the DMF is now inextricably woven into business practices across the country. How will the decision be made as to who is allowed access? Who is qualified to make these decisions? Any attempt to discern eligibility to the DMF will inevitably result in resources being spent unnecessarily.
2. Tax fraud involving the use of the social security numbers of the deceased results from a lack of communication between governmental agencies. These cases could be eliminated if the IRS and law enforcement were to incorporate use of the DMF themselves. There is no excuse for the IRS failing to perform the same simple fraud checks the rest of us do.
3. Rather than enact legislation guaranteed to hamper commercial practices across the country, it is preferable to look to within the Social Security Administration itself to correct sloppy procedures that have led to improperly reporting the deaths of living individuals. Improper functioning within the SSA is not a reason to close off access to this tool.
4. The Death Master File is overwhelmingly used as a means to verify identity, not steal it. It is an essential tool for maintaining an open society. In a democratic nation it is our duty to safeguard the right of all individuals to have access to public records, even when there is the chance that those records could be abused. When the records remain open, the fraud is easier to expose.
Millions of genealogists would be greatly impacted if legislation restricting access to the DMF were to be enacted. While the Massachusetts Genealogical Council would have preferred to give live testimony at the invitation-only March 20th hearing, we submit this written testimony in the hope that our members’ voices will be heard. We offer the assistance of our organization to the Senate Committee on Finance Subcommittee on Fiscal Responsibility & Economic Growth in safeguarding the security of all Americans with Social Security numbers while promoting open access to public records.
Polly FitzGerald Kimmitt, CGSM
Massachusetts Genealogical Council P.O. Box 5393
Cochituate, MA 01778 508-842-8850
Certified Genealogist and CG are service marks of the Board for Certification of Genealogists®, used under license by the Board's associates after periodic evaluation.