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AUSTIN, Texas —
Imagine being alive and well–and then getting a notification that you’re dead. It happened to one Texas woman, and it took months for her life to get back to normal.
Barbara Kleinschmidt was “killed” electronically. She says she lived for months without access to her bank accounts and credit.
“You’re telling me I can’t get my money, you closed my credit accounts, but I am alive?” recalls Kleinschmidt.
When she called the Social Security office, Kleinschmidt says she was told someone, possibly a coroner or funeral director, faxed in a document listing her as deceased. They would not give her any further information.
She even got a letter from her bank, addressed to “The estate of Barbara Kleinschmidt” that asked her family to accept condolences for their loss.
Kleinschmidt says she got depressed and confused.
“I didn’t want to live, because I just didn’t know where, because it was hard for me to know what was going on,” she remembers.
Kleinschmidt believes someone she knows may be behind her digital death.
When we called the Social Security office, we were told Kleinschmidt was listed as deceased for nearly a year.
A representative wouldn’t tell us how the mistake happened, only that it could be due to something as simple as a typing error by an employee or someone else with access to the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File. Coroners, doctors, even credit unions, have access to it.
“It’s very problematic,” said Shawn McCleskey, a retired Secret Service agent and Director of Organizational Education and Measurement at the University of Texas at Austin Center for Identity.
McCleskey says more needs to be done to determine who’s who.
“How much diligence do they, in fact, do to verify if that person is in fact the person who should be submitting the documents?” wondered McCleskey.
He says many agencies don’t have the time or money to be as thorough as they should be.
While Texas’ system seems pretty secure, so-called “master hacker” Chris Rock tells KEYE TV the system is only as strong as its weakest link.
Rock presented at hacker convention Def Con on the weakness of the electronic death registration system. He was able to get into the electronic death registration system in four states. A Texan could be declared dead in any of them.
According to Rock, people can easily pose as doctors or funeral directors. He calls it a fatal flaw in the system. In some states, all it takes to set up an account is a doctor’s name, address and medical license number. A basic internet search can often yield that information.
And McCleskey says Kleinschmidt’s theory about her “death” being a personal attack might ring true. He’s seen people steal identities not for financial gain, but for public humiliation.
“If you just want to cause someone some real grief, have them declared dead,” said McCleskey. “That would be. Talk about, what this woman is experiencing, a real nightmare.”
Kleinschmidt says her main concern now is making sure her nightmare doesn’t happen to someone else.
“People are looking at me like I’m still dead,” said Kleinschmidt.