Site of the Living Dead: Defending against Zombie Data

[article]
Summary:
The dead walk among us. Both humans and data declared digitally deceased are actually alive, and the information saying otherwise is doing continued harm. These are the harrowing tales of zombie data, where death takes on a twisted meaning and what is dead may not stay dead. Spooky!

The dead walk among us. Both humans and data declared digitally deceased are actually alive, and the information saying otherwise is doing continued harm. These are the harrowing tales of zombie data, where death takes on a twisted meaning and what is dead may not stay dead.

Reports of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Fraud detection and prevention is a serious business in most benefit and insurance companies—sometimes, deadly serious. There are multiple incidents where United States veterans lost their benefits due to a lack of understanding of the fraud-prevention systems in place, and agent inability to correct a simple mistake. Veteran zombies are multiplying, and the virus spreads not by bites, but by bytes.

Consider the plight of Army veteran Robert Pressley, who was very much alive when the US Department of Veterans Affairs notified him of his own death. Two checks arrived to pay for his unneeded burial. Letters were sent to his ex-wife informing her of his death, despite his call to the Veterans Administration to inform them multiple times that not only had they both remarried, but he was also obviously still alive. However, his benefits were terminated, along with his virtual life. With no death certificate, the VA had no proof that Pressley died; they were unable to provide a reason for his account being marked deceased.

Army veteran Jerry Miller had a similar experience. His account was wrongly marked deceased—not once, but four times. After receiving a letter from the VA informing his estate that his benefits were being cut off, he notified them that he was alive, and his benefits were reinstated. But he soon received another letter, again notifying him of his death. Each time the mistake was fixed, the fraud-detection algorithm “corrected” for this issue, terminating his benefits. Each time, the VA sent letters asking for his benefits to be reimbursed by his estate. Each time, he would call and explain the problem again. “I can't die but one time,” he said. “They have killed me four times.”

How Social Security Creates Thousands of Zombies

Another case of fraud prevention gone wrong is the false reports of digital deaths to the Social Security Administration. Between January 2004 and April 2007, the Social Security Administration made 44,000 corrections for when it had incorrectly listed people as deceased. This required face-to-face interviews with each person, along with processing "resurrection transactions" to remove the individuals from the "death master file.”

A conflict of interest between supporting the dependents and spouses of the recently deceased and having continued benefits for those who may be wrongly reported as deceased makes this situation tricky. The strategy is to try to quickly correct the falsely reported deaths rather than delay reporting deaths in an effort to reduce the number of false reports. The Social Security Administration has a reputation for usually correcting the issue in weeks, sometimes taking up to a few months in the most difficult cases.

But the “death master file” is sent to Medicare, Medicaid, and the IRS, causing a cascading effect that can complicate correcting errors if they aren’t found quickly. Those falsely entered as dead may experience a delay in benefits and a loss of insurance or pension plans, or even impact housing and leave individuals without necessary medication. These mistakes become a bureaucratic nightmare to correct. Even when fixed quickly, those wrongly declared dead are more susceptible to fraud and identity theft.

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