PORT ORANGE, Fla. - As retiree Lee Miller was waiting for his terminally ill wife at her oncologist's office, he logged on to his bank's website to verify that his monthly Social Security payment had been deposited and his online bills were paid.
Although Miller's wife was covered by health insurance, he needed cash to purchase additional medical supplies.
Miller, 70, discovered that his savings account had been completely drained.
Most of the money in the Vietnam veteran’s checking account was gone, too.
"They left me $80," said Miller. "I was furious. At first, I thought I'd been hacked."
But instead of being targeted by a thief, Miller later learned that the federal government had intentionally withdrawn his money, assuming that he no longer needed it.
"They told me I was dead," Miller said.
"I died in 2012, September 2012."
Errors in master death file
Miller is one of nearly 10,000 living Americans who are erroneously reported dead to the Social Security Administration (SSA) each year.
In most cases, the citizens' names, birth dates and Social Security numbers are mistakenly entered into SSA's master death file, a computer database used by government agencies, financial institutions, medical researchers and genealogists.
"This is not a unique problem, unfortunately," said U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, who is helping Miller correct the error and get his money back from the government.
"Someone makes a mistake by inputting the wrong number into a database, and there is major fallout as a result."
As soon as Miller saw that his money was missing, he contacted his bank.
"The said a 'death notice' had been issued and a red flag had been put on all my accounts," said Miller.
The funds in Miller's savings account were transferred on Aug. 11 into his checking account, bank records show.
The same day, the SSA and the U.S. Treasury Department withdrew six payments of $1,635 from Miller's checking account, the same amount as his monthly Social Security payment.
"They owe me almost $10,000," said Miller, who thinks the agencies were trying to prevent fraud by recouping benefits paid to him after the government thought he was dead.
"(Bank employees) said they were very sorry. It's obviously a mistake. But it was my responsibility to correct it, and there was nothing they could do to replace the funds," Miller told News 6.
Miller also learned that his Medicare supplement health insurance might have been canceled.
"My insurance company called me and said, 'I've got a death notice here and you have prescriptions you have requested refills on,'" Miller said.
The retiree marched over to his local SSA office and demanded answers.
"I'm standing right there with all the documentation proving I'm alive," he said.
"No one has been able to give me an accurate answer as to how it happened or why it happened."
An SSA spokesman declined to tell News 6 why the agency believed that Miller was dead, citing privacy laws.
However, the agency said it was providing assistance to Miller.
"Social Security receives death information from a variety of sources (family members, funeral homes, federal agencies, financial institutions, etc.)," SSA deputy regional communications director Frank Viera wrote in an email to News 6.
"If an error occurs -- once we are notified -- we take action to correct our records as soon as possible."
Just a small fraction, .35 percent, of the 2.8 million new death reports added to SSA's records each year are erroneous, according to the agency.
But that's still about 9,800 Americans who must prove to banks, insurance companies, law enforcement and others entities that they are not dead.
In Miller's case, an SSA employee asked him to sign an affidavit certifying that he is "alive and well."
Congress demands action
"When you're looting somebody's bank account, you need to rectify that as soon as humanly possible," said DeSantis.
"The more the public sees some of these mistakes and they see how it negatively impacts the American people, the more scrutiny (SSA) will have."
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is also critical of errors in SSA's master death file.
"This is troubling news for Florida's seniors because the SSA's definition of status influences payments from various federal agencies," Rubio wrote in a letter to SSA's acting commissioner, Carolyn Colvin.
Rubio is urging SSA to follow through with plans to notify seniors and their families in writing about potential erroneous death notices and allow them to confirm their status.
The senator also believes that it should be SSA's responsibility to notify federal agencies, credit bureaus and banks when records are incorrectly classified.
"Doing so would prevent financial hardship for a substantial number of seniors who rely on these benefits," Rubio wrote.
Miller said that before the SSA entered him into the master death file, he wishes the agency had checked with the Internal Revenue Service to see if he was still paying taxes.
"Or they could have just called me before somebody actually pushed that button and said 'He's dead,'" Miller told News 6.
"Get your act together and do some research before you ruin somebody's life."
SSA: Monitor your records
The SSA recommends that Americans regularly monitor their credit and financial records for any irregularities.
If anyone suspects hat he or she might have been reported as deceased, the agency recommends visiting a local SSA office to fix the mistake.
More than a month after draining Miller's bank accounts, the government has reimbursed most of the retiree's money.
But Miller said he’s still going through what has been described to him as the "resurrection process."
"I may still be dealing with other agencies, driver's licenses, who knows?" said Miller.
"I think this is something that is going to go on for a while."
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