Genealogy services stop listing Social Security numbers

Dec 15 2011 - 4:33pm

Genealogybank.com became the nation's first ancestry research firm to stop posting Social Security numbers online, after two people complained their privacy was violated when the Social Security Administration falsely listed them as deceased.

"We made the decision several weeks ago that we would rather err on the side of privacy," said Daniel Jones, vice president of consumer products for Newsbank.com, which owns the research service based in Naples, Fla. It made the change Nov. 8.

The nation's largest commercial genealogy research company -- Ancestry.com -- earlier this week also stopped posting Social Security numbers at the request of federal lawmakers. Four Democratic senators, in a Dec. 1 letter to the five biggest services, urged that they withhold some information they get from the federal government under the Freedom of Information Act.

These actions follow an investigation by Scripps Howard News Service that found the Social Security's database, called the Death Master File, incorrectly listed the names and personal information of tens of thousands of living Americans and is often used by identity thieves to commit tax fraud.

Genealogybank.com stopped listing Social Security numbers "in response to people's concerns about privacy," Jones said. "Two people who were living contacted us to say they were concerned that their private information was exposed. That's when we made the decision."

Scripps Howard earlier this year identified 31,931 Americans who were falsely listed as dead as a result of what Social Security officials called "inadvertent keying errors" by federal workers. The errors meant their privacy had been seriously breached.

Newspapers and television stations around the nation contacted those people and found many suffered an Orwellian nightmare in which they were denied credit cards, refused job interviews, suffered frozen bank accounts, denied student loans and even detained by police on suspicion of fraud.

Dozens of families with recently deceased children also have complained that easy online access to the Death Master File permitted identity thieves to claim those children as dependents in federal income tax filings.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio and one of the letter's coauthors, said he first learned of the problem when Roberta Thomas, of Columbus, complained crooks used her deceased infant daughter's Social Security number to commit tax fraud. He praised the voluntary decision by genealogy services to withhold some information provided by the federal government.

"After the death of a child, the last thing a parent should have to think about is tax fraud," Brown said. "This is a good step forward in preventing criminals from profiting on the grief of others."

Brown and the letter's other coauthors -- Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Richard Durbin of Illinois and Bill Nelson of Florida -- asked websites owned by The New York Times Co. and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) to stop providing access to the full Death Master File.

"We are looking into how this matter can be resolved," said Eric Hawkins, spokesman for the Salt Lake City-based Mormon church, which operates the popular site Familysearch.org.

The New York Times operates Genealogy.about.com, which does not directly post Social Security numbers but does link to sites such as Familysearch.org that make the full Death Master File available.

"At this time, there are no plans for Genealogy.about.com to stop linking to other available genealogical resources," said Kristin Mason, a spokeswoman for the site.

Reach Thomas Hargrove at hargrovet@shns.com. Reach Isaac Wolf at wolfi@shns.com

 

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