By Sean Gorman May 11, 2015

Warner says millions of Social Security numbers still active for people 112 or older

People die, but their Social Security numbers often linger on.

So says U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who recently introduced a bill that would require the Social Security Administration to do a better job of tracking the departed to make sure their federal benefits don’t survive.

"The SSA (Social Security Administration’s) Office of the Inspector General reported last month that, according to the agency’s own records, there are 6.5 million people who have active Social Security numbers who are 112 years of age or older," Warner said in an April 23 news release.

That’s more than twice the of population of Chicago -- filled with people at least 112. It’s especially remarkable when you consider that the Gerontology Research Group says it knew of 42 people in the world who were alive last October at 112 or older. Fifteen of them lived in the U.S.

The immortal Social Security numbers, Warner said, open avenues for fraudulent benefit claims.

We wondered whether the senator’s Social Security figures were correct.

Warner’s office pointed us to a March 4 report issued by Patrick O’Carroll Jr., the Social Security Administration’s inspector general. O’Carroll testified about the agency’s death records during a March 16 hearing before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. He stated that the agency maintains an electronic record on each person given a Social Security number and is supposed to update it when they die so their number can no longer be used.

The agency gets its death information from a variety of sources, such as family members, funeral homes and financial institutions. It maintains a "Death Master File" with nearly 90 million electronic records that’s shared with other federal agencies to prevent erroneous benefits and sold to credit reporting companies to guard against fraud.

Sometimes the Social Security Administration prematurely declares people dead, as recently reported on CBS’ 60 Minutes, causing bureaucratic nightmares when those people try to open bank accounts or do myriad other things requiring a valid Social Security number. The agency’s internal auditor found in 2008 that 20,000 people had been wrongly listed as dead.

And sometimes the opposite is true, O'Carroll said in his testimony, and the agency fails to take away Social Security numbers from the dead -- even when  the agency has been informed of the deaths.

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It all came to a head a few years ago when O'Carroll’s office learned that a bank reported that a man had opened accounts using the Social Security numbers of two different people -- one born in 1886 and the other in 1893. The auditors did a little research and found that the world’s oldest living man at the time was 112. So they chose the age as the entry point of their investigation.

The auditors indeed found, as Warner claimed, that 6.5 million cardholders were listed in Social Security records as being at least 112. All but about 100,000 of the numbers were issued prior to 1972, when the agency started using electronic records.

The good news is that the auditors found no instances of people illegally collecting Social Security through one of these old numbers. The bad news is that the potential for abuse is high and, according to the report, "thousands" of the numbers "could have been used" to commit other types of identity fraud.

Auditors found that 66,920 of the numbers had been used by people for whom the government received wage reports from 2006 and 2011. One of the numbers appeared on 613 different wage reports.

That means people were using the numbers in job applications and 3,873 of the numbers turned up in E-Verify inquiries, an Internet-based system that allows employers to determine whether potential hirees are entitled by immigration laws to work in the U.S.

Final notes: If you’re wondering, the verified oldest person in the world at this writing is Jeralean Talley of Michigan, whose 116th birthday is on May 23.  The oldest man is Sakari Momoi of Japan, who turned 112 in February.

The verified oldest person ever was Jeanne Calment of France, who died in 1997 at 122 years, 164 days old. The oldest man was Christian Mortensen of Denmark, who died in 1998 at 115 years, 252 days.

Our ruling

Warner said the Social Security Administration’s Inspector General found "there are 6.5 million people who have active Social Security numbers who are 112 years of age or older."

The audit Warner cites indeed found that there are an implausible 6.5 million active Social Security numbers belonging to people who would be at least 112.

We rate Warner’s claim True.

Our Sources

Senator Mark Warner, "Warner, colleagues introduce bipartisan bill to end Social Security checks for dead people," April 23, 2015.

Email from Rachel Cohen, spokeswoman for Sen. Mark Warner, April 29, 2015.

Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General, "Numberholders age 112 and older who did not have death entry on the numident," March, 2015.

Social Security Administration Inspector General Patrick P. O’Carroll, Jr., prepared statement to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, March 16, 2015.

Sean Brune, senior advisor to the Social Security Administration deputy commission, testimony to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, March 16, 2015.

60 Minutes, "Dead or alive," March 15, 2015.

U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, "Examining improper payments and errors in the death master file," March 16, 2015.

U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing March 16, 2015.

Sen. Ron Johnson, "Inspector General Report finds millions of errors in Social Security Administration list of card holders: Six and a half million individuals listed as alive but older than 112 years," March 9, 2015.

Government Accountability Office, "Government-wide estimates and use of death data to help prevent payments to deceased individuals," March 16, 2015.

Gerontology Research Group, "Oldest validated living supercentenarians," Oct. 18, 2014.

Email from William BJ Jarrett, spokesman for the Social Security Administration, May 7, 2015.

Associated Press, "Flawed Social Security data say 6.5M in US reach age 112," March 16, 2015.

The Washington Post, "Millions over age 112 have Social Security numbers, and it’s not because we’re living longer," March 10, 2015.

Time, "Why 6.5 million Social Security numbers shouldn’t exist," March 17, 2015.

Time, "Meet the World’s New Oldest Living Person," April 6, 2015.

Guinness World Records, "Happy 112th Birthday to Sakari Momoi," Feb. 5, 2015.

The New York Times, "Jeanne Calment, World’s Elder, Dies at 122," Aug. 5, 1997.

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Warner says millions of Social Security numbers still active for people 112 or older

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