The Death Master File

Even the Dead Can Fall Victim to Identity Theft

Identity Theft Social Security Card
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One of the federal government's most effective weapons against financial fraud, identity theft -- and now terrorism -- is a massive database of dead people grimly known as the "Death Master File."

Produced and maintained by the Social Security Administration (SSA) and distributed by the National Technical Information Service (NTIS), the Death Master File is a massive computer database containing more than 85 million records of deaths, reported to Social Security, from 1936 to present.

The Death Master File is just a special subset of the Social Security Administration's massive Numident or “Numerical Identification System,” database file. First computerized in 1961, the Numident file contains information about all persons, living or dead, who have been issued Security numbers issued since 1936.

How Crooks Use Dead People

Assuming the identity of a dead person has long been a favorite ploy of criminals. Everyday, living bad people use the names of dead people to apply for credit cards, file for income tax refunds, try to buy guns, and any number of other fraudulent criminal activities. Sometimes they get away with it. More often, however, they are foiled by the Social Security Death Master file.

State and federal government agencies, financial institutions, law enforcement, credit reporting and monitoring organizations, medical researchers and other industries access the Social Security Death Master file in an effort to prevent fraud -- and since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- comply with the USA Patriot Act.

By methodically comparing applications for bank accounts, credit cards, mortgage loans, gun purchases, and other applications against the Death Master File, the financial community, insurance companies, security firms and state and local governments are better able to identify and prevent all forms of identity fraud.

Fighting Terrorism

Part of the USA Patriot Act requires government agencies, banks, schools, credit card companies, gun dealers, and many other businesses, to make an effort to verify the identity of customers. They must also maintaining records of the information they used in verifying customers' identity. Those businesses may now access an online search application or maintain a raw data version of the file. The online service is updated weekly and the weekly and monthly updates are offered electronically via web applications, thus reducing handling and production time.

Other Uses for the Death Master File

Medical researchers, hospitals, oncology programs all need to track former patients and study subjects. Investigative firms use the data to identify persons, or the death of persons, in the course of their investigations. Pension funds, insurance organizations, Federal, State and Local governments and others responsible for payments to recipients/retirees all need to know if they might be sending checks to deceased persons. Individuals may search for loved ones, or work toward growing their family trees.

The Death Master File is also widely used by amateur and professional genealogists. According to The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, an estimated 58.2 million people died in the United States from 1962 to September 1991 alone. Of that number, 73% or 42.5 million are found in the Death Master File. In addition, the Social Security Administration reports that since 1973, up to 96% of deaths of individuals aged 65 or older now in the Death Master File. Today, around 95% of all deaths, at any age, are reported to the Death Master File.

What Information is on the Death Master File?

With records of over 85 million deaths reported to SSA, the Death Master file includes some or all of the following information on each decedent:

  • Name (Given name, surname), since 1990s the middle initial
  • Date of birth (Year, Month, Day)
  • Date of death (Year, Month), since 2000 the day of month
  • Social Security number
  • Whether death has been verified or a death certificate has been observed.

In 2011, the following information was removed from the file:

  • Last known ZIP code of the person while alive
  • ZIP code to which the lump sum death benefit was sent, if applicable

Since Social Security does not have the death records of all persons, the absence of a particular person from the Death Master file is not absolute proof that the person is alive, notes the Social Security Administration.