BALTIMORE - It's the one number you go to great lengths to protect, knowing that if someone learns your Social Security number they could try and get a credit card or a mortgage or even file as you on their taxes. You don't give it to just anybody. But the federal government does, once you're dead.
William Donald Schaefer’s number is 214-xx-xxxx. Former Baltimore Colt and movie actor Bubba Smith used 451-xx-xxxx. First Lady Betty Ford was 386-xx-xxxx. We've gotten our hands on the Social Security numbers for these big stars and for little angels like six-month old Ava Pilcher and five-month old Kaitlyn McClung.
We’ve got millions of valuable numbers in our hands. We're not sharing them, but someone else is putting them out there. Security expert Steve Schwartz from Intersections, Inc. says, “I would say most people are completely unaware of this."
Most people don’t know a number you're told to protect at all costs will one day be exposed on the internet. We found them listed by the thousands thanks to a simple web search. But it's not hackers who hand over this dangerous information for anyone to see. Schwartz explains, "The federal government is not only allowed to release it, they're required to release it."
Since 1980, the feds have been required to report the name, Social Security number and other details about American citizens, not the living, but the dead. It goes into a giant database called the Social Security Death Master File.
With 90,000,000 names you'll find everyone from Peter Falk (Columbo) to wrestler Randy Savage on the list. But you don't have to be famous. One day, even us regular Joes will make the cut because just like death, you don't get a choice.
Consumer advocates like Carmen Balber with Consumer Watchdog believe it’s a dangerous move by the government. She says, “Making this information public has clearly put people at risk."
Consider it social insecurity, because even when you're dead, your Social Security number is alive and well. The government adds it to the Death File so credit firms and banks can check for fraud. But they're not the only ones who use it. Balber explains, "Thieves will troll the internet looking for private information they can use to exploit for financial gain and this master file of deceased Americans gives them the perfect opportunity."
It’s an opportunity to use the identities of those who've passed on for profit. People like Matt and Roya Pilcher from Potomac have learned the hard way. Their baby girl, Ava, was born premature and smiled through six months of complications following her birth. Her lungs were not as strong as her spirit and she passed away. Dad Matt says, “She was a really happy baby even though she had to fight for every breath she ever took."
Now the Pilchers are fighting too, to re-claim their daughter. Last month they learned a stranger stole Ava's Social Security number and claimed her as a dependent. Roya says, “I was angry. We were angry, pretty mad."
They felt a parent's rage after finding Ava's private information listed in a very public file. They believe scammers simply picked her number from the web and placed it on a tax form. And they're not alone. The McClung family from Carroll County has experienced a similar heartbreak. Mom Stephanie Meyer-McClung, says, “We were hoping to beat the people to the punch but they got to Kaitlyn's number first."
A fraudulent tax claim was also made for Kaitlyn McClung, who died from SIDS at just five months old. Her name and number are also listed in the Social Security Death Master File and appeared on someone else’s 10-40. Dad Terry McClung tells ABC2, "To know that someone is taking advantage of your child, even if they're deceased is painful. It's frustrating."
McClung's frustration has taken him to Capitol Hill. Last spring, he testified before Congress about the Social Security Death Index and the risks of publishing this sensitive information. Balber and Consumer Watchdog question the decision too. She says, “It's really a question, I think, of whether or not the Social Security Administration is willing to recognize there's a problem here."
Balber and her advocacy organization think it's a problem that could be easily solved, by releasing less information on the list. But the SSA doesn't have much choice. Private companies get the file and publish so you can search it it thanks to a court case and the Freedom of Information Act. Balber says, "This information is being misused to consumers harm. We should revisit this decision."
The McClung and Pilcher families agree. Their little girls were lost too soon and later found by strangers. Now these two families are fighting back, knowing their babies are much more than a number.
Both the McClungs and Pilchers tried to get information about who stole their child's identity and confirmation on whether the Death Index was the source. Both were told by the IRS that they couldn't release who claimed their girls because of privacy concerns.