Declared Dead: Woman mistakenly placed on Death Master File

Chad Pradelli Image
Tuesday, February 12, 2019
Woman mistakenly placed on Death Master File
Woman mistakenly placed on Death Master File. Watch the report from Chad Pradelli on Action News at 11 p.m. on February 11, 2019.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- An East Falls woman said she feels like the walking dead after the government mistakenly declared her dead. As it turns out, she is just one of thousands each year who wind up in this predicament.

Nicole Landon received the mortifying email from American Express last month.

"My anxiety probably shot up to like 150," she said. "It says we regret to inform you and express our sincere condolences on the passing of Nicole Landen."

Landen figured American Express must have made a simple mistake. But soon, she realized she was financially paralyzed. Her AMEX was closed and then she learned her bank account was also frozen.

"The information I was getting, it could snowball to my health insurance, my 401k, obviously my job couldn't deposit any money into my account," she added.

Landen figured it'd be a quick fix and bee-lined over to the Social Security Office in Upper Darby.

There she was told it was likely a data entry error and that it appeared she was mistakenly placed on Social Security's so-called "Death Master File."

"I was like, 'that's it? There's zero accountability?' She was like, 'someone probably put in a 6 instead of a 3, didn't cross check your name, date of birth and you were marked dead.' When did the social security office mark me dead? December 22nd," she said.

The Social Security Administration or SSA estimates roughly 12,000 people a year are erroneously declared dead by them each year. Social Security told Action News it couldn't comment directly on Landen's case but its records are "highly accurate."

Consumer Protection Attorney Jim Francis said once a person is placed on the Death Master File it is not an easy fix. He said the error spreads like a "crack" once the credit reporting agencies are notified.

"It is a time consuming endeavor which you hope is successful at some point," Francis added.

And it appears SSA not only mistakenly declares people dead, it also pays them. A 2017 federal audit found Social Security mistakenly paid $37 million in benefits to just dead veterans.

Delaware Senator Tom Carper has introduced a bill to help Landen and curb government waste.

"We need to improve the information in the Death Master File. We need to improve access for other federal agencies who could use that information," said Senator Carper.

Landen said she did receive one positive letter from the ordeal. That came in the form of an email from Wells Fargo addressed to her mom, which said her student loan debt was forgiven. Landen said unfortunately she knows that's only until she's deemed alive once again.

"I actually hope that gets frozen out," she chuckled.

Social Security helped restore Landen's accounts quickly after the Action News Troubleshooters reached out to them. Landen said her credit score did take a ding from the mishap and she is working to correct it.

Social Security said if you believe you may have mistakenly been placed on their Death Master File the first step is to immediately go to your local SSA office and bring at least one current government ID like a passport or driver's license.

See the Social Security Administration's list of acceptable identification for proof of life.


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