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N4T Investigators: Cochise County woman trying to prove she’s alive after being wrongfully declared dead

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COCHISE COUNTY, Ariz. (KVOA) - Christie Forcheaux was devastated to learn of her mother’s death right before Thanksgiving.  

“It was horrible, you’re supposed to be happy with your family having fun enjoying family time and then this happens,” Christie said. 

But to her surprise, she learned of her mother’s passing from the Social Security Administration while she was sitting next to her. 

“It was a big surprise,” Christie said. "I was like how can she be dead when she’s right here." 

The News 4 Tucson Investigators spoke with her and her mother Wanda, who seemed very much alive to us. 

“I just sat there and thought for a minute, I’m dead nobody told me,” Wanda said. 

But what happened after is no laughing matter, Wanda said she stopped receiving her checks from social security she depends on, her death was reported to the credit agencies freezing her credit history and her health insurance stopped her Medicare coverage. 

“I have no insurance," she said. "I can’t get my medicine because I was dead and then I have no money to pay my premiums anyways.” 

She has been relying on her daughter to take care of her while she tried getting the issue taken care of. However, more than a month later, she says the situation has not been fixed. 

“I kept calling I must have made 40 calls to the social security office,” Wanda said. 

She says social security would not tell her how she was declared dead.  

“I said how can you say I am dead, ruin my life and not know who did it,” she said. 

The News 4 Tucson Investigators reached out to the SSA who sent us the following statement: 

“Privacy laws preclude Social Security from discussing the specifics of an individual’s case.  Please have Ms. Forcheaux contact our office so that we can assist her.  (We removed phone number and names given) Approximately 2.9 million deaths are reported to the Social Security Administration each year and our records are highly accurate.  Of these millions of death reports we receive each year, less than one-third of 1 percent are subsequently corrected.  Deaths are reported to Social Security primarily from the States, but also from family members, funeral homes, and financial institutions.  If a person suspects that they have been incorrectly listed as deceased on their Social Security record, they should contact their local Social Security office as soon as possible.  They can find contact information to their nearest Social Security office at https://www.ssa.gov/agency/contact/.  They should be prepared to provide at least one piece of current (not expired) original form of identification.  Part of the process of correcting records includes ensuring all current and past due benefits are paid.  Social Security can provide a letter that the error has been corrected that can be shared with other organizations. 

The News 4 Tucson Investigators reached out to the Office of the Inspector General for the Social Security Administration about how common an issue like this is. A spokesperson sent us the following information: 

“We conducted three audits related to erroneous death entries.  We attached an older audit from 2008 (A-06-08-18042_0) and a summary of a 2011 limited distribution audit (A-06-10-20173_7), as well as our most recent audit on the topic (06-18-50708). 

As discussed in the recent audit, in calendar year 2019, SSA removed 6,873 death entries from the Death Master File. 

According to audits conducted in 2008 and 2011, from January 2004 through April 2010, SSA deleted 83,000 death entries from the Death Master File, an average of more than 13,000 per year. 

SSA OIG did not determine whether any of the individuals were living or deceased for the years we evaluated.  Rather, we checked the individuals’ records after death entries were removed and found that a significant number were in current pay status.  It is reasonable to conclude that SSA determined that the individuals were actually alive if they were in current pay status after having death entries removed.” 

The N4T Investigators spoke to James E Lee the COO for the Identity Theft Resource Center, he said his organization receives about two similar complaints per year. 

“It’s not something you come across very often," Lee said. "But when you do, there’s always a story around it that points out we should have a better process."

He said there are several possibilities for how Wanda was declared dead. 

“More often than not, it’s a clerical error," Lee said. "It can be as simple as someone miss keyed a social security number. There is also the possibility there could be identity theft involved.” 

For Wanda, she just hopes she can be resurrected soon.  

“Got to be something better in the system for them to get better information," she said. "If nothing else. call me to see if I am dead.”    

Lee says if you find out you have been wrongly declared dead, report it to social security as soon as possible because in his experience it takes several months to resolve. 

If you have a story you’d like us to investigate, email us at investigators@kvoa.com or call our tip line at 520-955-4444. 

If you have a story you'd like us to investigate, email us at investigators@kvoa.com or call our tip line at 520-955-4444.

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