Worldwide, there are estimated to be somewhere between 300 and 450 supercentenarians -- people at or above age 110 -- alive today. Unfortunately, a recent report from Social Security's inspector general reveals that Social Security's records indicate that about 6.5 million Americans above the age of 112 haven't yet passed away.
While Social Security isn't paying out benefits on those 6.5 million -- only about 13 supercentenarians are actually receiving benefits -- their Social Security numbers are still active and can be used. That can be a problem. A real person with an active Social Security number has a reason to be on the lookout for identity theft -- and report and clear it up when it happens. A person who has passed away, on the other hand, is much less likely to have someone vigilantly looking out for them when it comes to identity theft.
Why that's a problem
Social Security numbers are used for multiple financial purposes -- everything from verifying employment eligibility to opening bank accounts and maintaining credit scores. That's on top of their direct purpose of tracking Social Security eligibility and benefit levels and the natural link between those benefits and your overall income tax records and reports.
Remember earlier this year, when many states stopped accepting electronic returns filed by Intuit's popular TurboTax program due to fraudulent filings? Living people whose IDs were stolen in this manner can eventually get things cleared up and also help authorities identify when their IDs are being misused. As the saying goes, "dead men tell no tales." With still-active, real Social Security numbers of people who have passed away, it's a lot easier for scammers to fly under the radar.
What can you do about it?
If you're the executor or next of kin of a person who passed away, be sure that person's death has been reported to Social Security. You can call Social Security at 1-800-772-1213 between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., Mondays through Fridays, to report a death. You can also visit your local Social Security office (locations available here) to report a death in person. Funeral homes are willing to report the death on your behalf, but you would have to provide the funeral home the deceased's Social Security number.
In addition to taking care of reporting those that passed away, take care to protect your own Social Security number. Know the times you actually need to divulge your Social Security number and the times you don't -- and don't give out your number unless you're obligated to.
Your employer needs to collect your Social Security number to get your income and tax reporting correct, as do financial institutions like your mortgage bank and brokerage. While you do have to give your Social Security number to those institutions, you should be smart about how you give it out. Additionally, you do have to put your Social Security number on your tax return.
While you do have to divulge your Social Security number to those institutions, be careful in how you share it. For instance, don't give your Social Security number out if someone claiming to be from the institution calls you and asks you for it. It may be a scammer looking to steal your identity.
- Ask for the reason why the person on the other end of the line needs your Social Security number.
- Offer another form of identity verification instead.
- Get a call back number and hang up the phone without divulging your Social Security number.
- Independently verify that the call back number belongs to the customer service arm of the institution making the request (an Internet search will generally help), and
- Only give out your Social Security number if there's a legitimate reason and no alternative way to verify your identity.
Similarly, don't respond to email inquiries asking for your Social Security number and don't fill out web forms asking for it unless you're doing something like actively applying for a mortgage online. Even then, make sure you're dealing with the real institution's web site, are on a web page that starts with "https:" (for 'secure'), and look for other signs of the site protecting your identity like masking your entry via dots instead of showing the numbers.
Despite the worry, Social Security will be there
In spite of Social Security's shortcomings -- like 6.5 million supercentenarians still listed as living in its records -- the program provides a valuable baseline income for millions of retirees. By all indications, it will still be there for you in some form, for many decades to come. Just do what you can to keep your and your loved ones' information out of the hands of those who'd do wrong with it. That will help to assure that you -- and not someone else -- gets what you've earned from Social Security.