Esther Enos, 61, of Abilene, Texas, found out she was "dead" when her cellphone suddenly stopped working about six years ago.
"They cut off my service and I went to find out why," Enos told the Abilene Reporter-News in Texas. "They said I was using the Social Security number of a deceased woman."
Many others found out while shopping.
"Well, I'm standing right here in front of you," retired truck driver Johnny Blevins, 69, of Seymour, Tenn., told a Radio Shack clerk who said his Social Security number indicated that he is deceased. "He still wouldn't sell me a phone."
The Knoxville News Sentinel in Tennessee reported that the federal records' error resulted in Blevins' banking account being frozen.
Enos and Blevins are among 31,931 Americans discovered by Scripps Howard News Service in a search for errors in the massive Death Master File database maintained by the Social Security Administration.
The government makes about 14,000 such errors every year -- or about 1 out of every 200 death reports -- because of "inadvertent keying errors" by federal workers, according to Social Security spokesman Mark Hinkle.
That would mean about 400,000 people have been falsely declared dead since 1980, when the Death Master File was created at the request of U.S. business interests who wanted the records to reduce consumer fraud.
People on the receiving end of the errors report they've suffered serious damage to their credit worthiness and, frequently, considerable financial hardship.
Taryn Jerez, 22, of Tampa, Fla., found out when she applied for a student loan.
"Unfortunately, the bank is unable to approve your request for the reason stated below -- deceased," Jerez said while quoting her letter of denial for WFTS television in Tampa.
As a precaution, Jerez now travels with a special document in her car's glove box. "I keep a copy of the paper from Social Security stating that I am, in fact, alive," she said.
Brigitte Bartels, 64, of Phoenix found out in 1995 when she applied for a bank checking account after she was divorced.
"They looked at me and said, 'We don't open an account for a deceased person,' " Bartels told KNXV television in Phoenix.
The problems continued for 15 years, causing her difficulties with the Internal Revenue Service and several employers, and with her Social Security benefits. She became a frequent visitor to the Phoenix Social Security office.
"Ten times I went down and said: 'Here's my driver's license. Do I look dead?' " she said. "It seemed like every couple of years I would have to go back and prove I wasn't dead. I kind of made a joke out of it, and it wound up not being so funny."
Marion Franciosa, 91, of Delray Beach, Fla., for several years was denied an official Florida ID card, a critical document for many routine transactions like cashing a check or making major purchases.
"Gee, at this age, I should have so much trouble?" Franciosa asked WPTV of West Palm Beach, Fla. "It didn't seem right. Here I am, alive, and they have me down as dead."
Dwayne Williams, 47, of Grosse Ile Township, Mich., found out during a very unusual telephone call in 1995 after he applied to lease an apartment.
"They asked to speak with Dwayne Williams. 'So, OK, you're speaking with him,' " Williams told WXYZ television in Detroit. "Then there was a pause. 'Dwayne Williams?' I said, 'Yes.' 'Umm, it says here you're deceased.' "
He thought he'd cleared up the error with a visit to his local Social Security office. But a year later, Williams was denied a credit card because the bank could not verify his Social Security number.
"It cropped up again saying I'm dead, so I had to prove it again," Williams said.
Walter Norris, 76, of Oak View, Calif., found out in 1997 when he and his wife tried to make a credit-card purchase at a local Target department store. The charge was denied.
"Later on that day we went to Costco and tried to get gas and it popped up again," Norris told the Ventura County Star in California. "There weren't any funds in the bank."
He later learned that Social Security had pulled all of their funds out of their checking account -- a common complaint among retirement recipients who were falsely reported dead.
Scripps Howard News Service first reported problems with the Death Master File in a series of stories released July 10. Among the victims of the accounting errors was Judy C. Rivers, 58, of Jasper, Ala., who was detained by police for several hours, denied college and mortgage loans, suffered difficulties obtaining job interviews and denied credit cards 14 times.
"I've had people call me from all over the country," Rivers said as a result of the story. "I send them a list of the proper authorities whom they should be dealing with. If they are close enough, I'll go to the Social Security office to try to help them if I can."
(Email SHNS investigative reporter Thomas Hargrove at email@example.com.)