The mother of a client of Clayton attorney Larry Kristoff died early this year, then the creditors started calling.
But they seemed to be chasing someone who never existed, coming after west coast accounts of an elderly Johnston County woman who died without debt. From the grave, Kristoff said, she had her identity stolen. Given the timing and limited vulnerabilities, Kristoff suspects death certificates and Social Security numbers.
Johnston County register of deeds Craig Olive has picked up Kristoff’s cause and shares his concern. Olive said his mother died seven years ago, but said he was disturbed to find her Social Security number online recently. Olive, too, blames death certificates and wants to see something done.
“I was appalled,” Olive said of seeing the number online. “It was just out there for anyone to see.”
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Olive said it’s a similar situation in his office, where he said people can come in and request death records and see a person’s name and Social Security number.
Cobey Culton, a spokesman of the state office of vital records said North Carolina law allows Social Security numbers only on certified copies of death certificates, which are available only to direct family members or descendants or legal representatives. The number is redacted on regular copies. But Olive said it’s still there in plain view for those who come into his office. He questions why it’s there at all and has enlisted the help of Congressman David Rouzer.
“I’m asking for them to revise the national standard,” Olive said. “Identity theft is increasing all the time. I would like them to revisit and update the national standards for death certificates. It could be the last four numbers or no numbers.
“If my mother’s Social Security number is online, others are too, and that’s unacceptable,” Olive said.
Kristoff admitted that he doesn’t know for certain that a stolen Social Security number led to his client’s mother’s identity theft, but that it seems to him the most likely.
“This was an elderly lady who had no debts,” Kristoff said. “It could have been revealed through records from her doctor’s office or Medicaid, but the death certificate seems likely the easiest way to find it out. Putting the numbers on death certificates is just one more way to mess things up.”
Patti Patterson, Social Security communications director for the region that includes North Carolina, said there is no federal requirement that Social Security number be on death records, saying it’s a matter left to the states.
“States are required, by law, to report information on deaths to Social Security so we can effectively administer our program,” Patterson said in an email. “However, it is not a requirement to print the Social Security Number on a death certificate.”
Full social security numbers can end up on genealogy research sites like Ancestry.com, which uses information obtained from the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File. But the site has a disclaimer that it doesn’t publish the full social security number of anyone who has died in the past 10 years.
Patterson said a 1980 federal court decision led to the creation of the Death Master File and that the information is shared with state and federal agencies that pay death benefits. She said the file is also shared with the Commerce Department’s National Technical Information Service, which sells it to banks and credit agencies.
“SSA has never provided online access to the (Death Master File),” Patterson said. “Many companies create and provide online access to a “Death Index” using the information from the NTIS.”
Culton said the vital records office follows applicable state and federal laws.
The matter does seem to be something Rouzer’s office is taking seriously. Danielle Smotkin, Rouzer’s communications director, said the congressman is working on a draft of legislation to address the issue.
“After Craig Olive, the Johnston County Register of Deeds, proposed the idea of removing Social Security numbers from death certificates in order to protect vulnerable families and individuals from identity theft, my office looked into this issue and determined that it was appropriate to address this matter at the federal level,” Rouzer said in an email. “A bill is currently being drafted, and I look forward to introducing it soon.”
Drew Jackson; 919-829-4577; @jdrewjackson