Website stops displaying Social Security numbers for recently dead

BALTIMORE - There are new results to report following an ABC2 News/Scripps Howard News Service Investigation.  Back in October, we told you about how the federal government releases Social Security numbers after you die, potentially putting the dead at risk for identity theft.  Those numbers were available online, but just weeks after our investigation, one popular website has locked them down and several others have been asked to do the same. 

Ancestry.com, the world's largest genealogy website, is just one place you could track down numbers supplied by the federal government through the Social Security Death Master File.  The company, like many others, obtains the data through Freedom of Information requests.  But now the company, according to its website, has moved access to those numbers behind a pay wall for members. 

The site has also taken another big step to protect against identity theft for the dead.  A spokeswoman says because of sensitivity around this information, the company recently decided not to display the Social Security information for anyone who's died in the last 10 years. 

The move comes after four U.S. Senators wrote to Ancestry.com and four other large ancestry search sites, urging them to stop posting the Social Security numbers of deceased Americans.  The lawmakers say the benefits of posting the information are outweighed by the costs of disclosing this personal information. 

As our ABC2 News investigation exposed back in October, some consumer advocacy groups believe ancestry websites that give access to the Death Index data may be a key tool for identity thieves to find and steal personal information they can use themselves.  Maryland families we spoke with say they believe the information belonging to their deceased children may have been pulled off websites where that data was publicly searchable. 

Ancestry.com spokeswoman Heather Erickson tells ABC2, "Ancestry.com is very thoughtful when choosing what public records it hosts to ensure that only those with significant family history value are available for our members to search. We, as well as other genealogical websites, provide members with access to the Social Security Death Index as it is a key record collection to help further family history research and  provides unique information about specific ancestors. As there is some sensitivity around this record collection, we have recently made a purposeful decision to not display Social Security numbers of any person that has passed away in the last 10 years. Additionally, we have placed the Social Security Death Index behind our paid wall to ensure that only dedicated family history researchers who have paid for an Ancestry.com subscription can access to this information."

Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, who is one of the lawmakers who've signed the letters sent to ancestry websites, has been monitoring this issue and spoke with our colleagues at Scripps Howard News Service.  He says, "This is a good first step toward protecting people's Social Security numbers from identity thieves.  I encourage other websites to follow suit.  But more must be done, including having the administration end the policy of immediately selling the Social Security numbers of deceased individuals."

Just days after our October investigation, Nelson met with leaders at the Social Security Administration to ask the agency to immediately stop supplying certain portions of the Death Master File to the public through Freedom of Information requests.  Legislation regarding this issue is currently in committee in both the House and Senate.

To see our original investigation, "Stealing from the dead", click here .

Print this article Back to Top

Comments