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.