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‘Credit zombie’ alive again, with lessons to teach

Bob Miller / for msnbc.com

Judy Rivers of Cullman, Ala. sits in the RV that has been her temporary home for the past two years since the credit system decided she was dead in 2010.

By Bob Sullivan

Judy Rivers isn’t dead after all. And, as anyone who’s had a maddening run-in with the nation’s credit system would agree, her “resurrection” is miraculous.

Some loyal Red Tape readers might recall an August 2010 story we published on Rivers titled, “Hey banks: This woman is alive.”  At the time, Rivers had fallen — or was pushed — into a credit system black hole. She was declared dead by someone, rendering her invisible to the nation’s lenders and other entities that rely on Social Security numbers for verification. She couldn’t open a bank account, write a check, use a credit card, get a loan or an apartment. In many cases, she couldn’t even apply for a job. 

She was, by 21st century standards, dead. Or, in perhaps a more-apt description, she had become a credit zombie.

Rivers, who lives in Alabama outside Birmingham, became a mini-celebrity after we published her digital nightmare. “This woman is alive” was one of our most popular stories, and publications the world over retold Rivers’ tale. Even Reader’s Digest covered the story.

Her odyssey began in late 2010, when a bank told her its systems said she was dead – and had been for two years.

“This Social Security Number has been discontinued; the holder of this number was reported dead on August 3, 2008,” read a notice she was shown by a bank official. A check of her consumer report obtained from Chex Systems, which the bank had used to obtain that information, confirmed the error. It read, “number inactivated due to report of death.”  Chex Systems said it received the data directly from the Social Security Administration, but that agency told Rivers that she was alive and well, according to its data.  She had the same experience with every other creditor and credit bureau she talked to. And there she remained for years, stuck in a Catch-22 despite her herculean efforts to find and correct the error.

As a result of her experience, Rivers became an advocate of credit zombies everywhere. She met with members of Congress and her state Legislature. She received many offers of help, employment, even a few date proposals. (Side note: No one seems to know what happens if a “living” credit user marries a zombie.) She wrote letters and filed protests with every entity she could think of. But every time she tried to get a credit report, she got the same response: “Deactivated because of death.”

Meanwhile, her life took darker and darker turns. The 50-something woman couldn’t get a job because companies couldn’t verify her work history or her credit. She couldn’t receive unemployment benefits — or any government benefits — because she was, well, dead.  One local bank, where she’d deposited money for years, agreed to cash checks for her, but otherwise she lived a pure “cash existence.” She accepted a friend’s offer to let her live in a small trailer by Smith Lake, about 90 minutes north of Birmingham, while she fought her battle. 

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Along the way, she met a host of other credit zombies, who, like her, had been pushed off the grid by the erroneous declaration of the death of their Social Security numbers.  According to the Social Security Administration, about 1,000 people each month are accidentally declared dead and their SSNs listed in the agency’s Death Master File. By some estimates, that means there are nearly half a million credit zombies walking around the U.S. right now.

“I feel very blessed,” Rivers said. “My problems are minimal compared to the horror stories I have listened to.”

After Rivers’ story was published, other zombies sought her out for advice. One woman, from nearby Winston City, Ala., was wheelchair-bound and had stopped receiving her disability checks seven months earlier. She was unable to purchase medicine, and her family had no idea what to do. So Rivers accompanied her to the nearest Social Security office, which discovered the woman had been placed on the Death Master File a year earlier. Rivers eventually helped get her benefits restored. 

“She had been going without for seven months,” Rivers said.

Accidental death isn’t just for the elderly, however. Rivers also heard from an 18-year-old who had saved thousands of dollars in a bank account for college, and discovered when he tried to withdraw the funds for tuition that it had been frozen because he had been declared dead.  The student had to miss a semester while fixing the problem.

(Out of privacy concerns, Rivers said she couldn’t share the identity of the other victims.)

All the while, Rivers kept lobbying for changes that would help victims, speaking with all nine members of Alabama’s congressional delegation at some point. She has started work on a book describing the nightmare. She’s working on a potential class-action lawsuit against various entities that have denied her and others credit.  

“I don’t mind being the poster child for this,” she said. “When I speak to people, I am very direct. I just ask them what they are doing to fix this.”

But in all that time — nearly two years — no one was able to resuscitate her credit, and her digital life. She’s sure of this because, under a lawyer’s instructions, she has religiously applied for credit at least twice a month since August 2010. She had to steel herself against constant rejection.

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“I’ve been turned down about 40 times,” she said.

But two weeks ago, the unthinkable happened.

“I was at a Belk store, and the clerk said, ‘Do you want to fill out a credit card application?’ I told her it wouldn’t do any good. But she gave me a funny look, and said, ‘Why don’t you try anyway?  It would get me 15 percent off my purchase. So I filled it out. I figured it would be this month’s test,” Rivers said. “Three minutes later it came back approved and I was in shock.  The clerk looked at me with an expression that said, ‘You just made all that up.’ She was a little disappointed when I didn’t use the card to make the purchase. “

Dizzy with excitement, but also worried about false hope, Rivers marched across the street to a T.J. Maxx and applied for a second card.  Within minutes, she was approved for that one, too. 

“GUESS WHAT? I AM FINALLY LIVING,” Rivers wrote in an exuberant email to msnbc.com a few hours later.

Rivers still has no idea how she ended up dead, though it almost certainly has something to do with the Social Security Death Master File.  In part because of her prompting, criticism of the DMF has ramped up in the past two years, and change seems to be in the air. Last fall, Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, introduced the Keeping IDs Safe Act, which would change the way death reporting works. And in February a subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee held hearings on death record reporting, at which the Social Security Administration’s Office of Inspector General offered critical testimony.  

One often overlooked element of the problem: Even after the Social Security administration fixes death reporting errors, victims’ SSNs often are still available through third-party websites, leaving zombies open to second nightmare: identity theft. “In some cases, these individuals’ (personal information) was still available for free viewing on the Internet—on ancestry sites like genealogy.com and familysearch.org—at the time of our report,” the inspector general said.

Social Security receives about 2.5 million death reports each year from multiple sources, including funeral homes, government agencies and family members. The inspector general, which says typographical errors are responsible for  the bulk of the credit zombie problem, says there’s a simple solution:  forcing Social Security to only accept reports from accredited entities using an electronic system.

“In February 2009, we found that about 98 percent of erroneous death entries on the DMF were death reports from non-state sources,” it said. But even electronic reports from states wouldn’t eliminate the problem. “Even if all states were to submit death reports via (electronic death registration), there could still be some erroneous death entries on the (Death Master File).”

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With all that Rivers has been through, she’s not willing to believe her “death” is over.  Still waiting for proof that she has a valid credit report – it is in the mail, she hopes. But most important, she’s still unemployed. Her biggest problem remains the job application process, which almost always includes a credit check. Even when her SSN is restored, her credit report will be mysteriously empty for several years, and she fears that will still hurt her chances of landing a job.

So while Congress wrestles with solutions, Rivers intends to keep applying pressure for change, and keep working to promote awareness of the problem.

“If you own a Social Security card, this can happen to you,” she said. 

RED TAPE WRESTLING TIPS: What to do if you’re a credit zombie
If it does happen to you, there’s one absurd question you must answer: How do you prove you’re alive? Proving you’re dead is relatively easy — a death certificate will do the trick.  But proving you’re alive? That will probably require an in-person visit to the Social Security office with a valid ID, such as a driver’s license.  Copies of recent utilities bills, paystubs or other credit-related activity could help make the case, too. 

Have the clerk request a correction to the Death Master File, and don’t leave the office without some kind of written record about the fix.  You’ll probably need to send copies of that record to your bank, other creditors and the nation’s credit bureaus.

The Identity Theft Resource Center recommends an additional step: finding the underlying death certificate and filing to have it amended. The certificate should be available from the county clerk or recorders’ office where it was initially filed, and should include the name of the informant who reported the death. Contact that informant, the agency says, and have that person sign a State Vital Record Amendment Affidavit Form. Bring that form to the Social Security officer, the Identity Theft Resource Center recommends.

Additional tips and a “Death Reported in Error” form letter are available from the Identity Theft Resource Center’s website.

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