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Woman declared dead, and it's not a Halloween prank

Social Security error makes her life a nightmare
Posted at 4:16 PM, Oct 30, 2017

It may be hard to believe, but more than 5,000 Americans each year become "The Walking Dead" when the government incorrectly declares them officially dead.

Barbara Byers learned she was one of them when her bank closed her ATM card.

"I kept calling to find out why my card wouldn't work," she said. "They finally told me I had been deceased. I said, 'Obviously I'm not deceased!'"

Social Security declared her dead Sept. 16 and alerted her creditors accordingly; by Sept. 26, when she found out, it was too late to easily correct the error.

Byers says things quickly escalated. Her credit cards, bank, health insurance and doctor's office said they couldn't help her anymore because she was technically deceased.

"The doctor's assistant said, 'Sorry for your loss, but your insurance will no longer be effective as of Sept. 30,'" she said.

Worse, the government took back the monthly retirement check on which she relied to pay her bills.

"I got my Social Security money Monday, and by the time I got home two hours later it was already out of my account. They took back my Social Security payment," she said.

Attorney Michael Walters of the Pro Seniors advocacy group said mortality-related mix-ups used to be more common, but recent changes have helped reduce the number from 12,000 to around 5,000 each year.

Years ago, a quick phone call from a funeral home (or someone claiming to be a funeral home) could get the ball rolling. No more. Walters said Social Security now requires more than just a phone call to declare someone dead. 

"Social Security has a policy on verifying that information without simply taking it over the phone," Walters said.

The "fatal error" now stems mostly from misplaced numbers on death certificates and cases of mistaken identity.

If two people with the same name share a birthday or other identifying information, the wrong one can be shuffled into the "dead" pile when their on-paper doppelgänger dies.

It then creates a domino effect with the unwitting zombie's bank and health accounts, especially if they are on Medicare, which uses the same number as one's Social Security number.

So he says you must take immediate action if you suspect a problem.

"The most important thing is that that your Social Security checks are stopped immediately," Walters said. 

To deal with this issue, Pro Seniors suggests:

  • Visit to your local Social Security office with several forms of ID, such as a driver's license, passport and birth certificate.
  • Ask them for a letter stating you are not deceased.
  • Bring or fax that letter to your banks and insurance companies.

Barbara Byers now has to prove to everyone with whom she does business that she is legally undead.

A regional Social Security spokeswoman told us that the agency cannot comment on individual cases or how this error may have happened, but Byers' missing money is now back in her account, her bank card is working, and she is officially alive once again -- just in time for Halloween.


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