Social Security for the Dead

by Jillian Kay Melchior
Neglect to tell the Social Security Administration that dad has died, and you can just keep collecting.

The heat comes early each spring in Slidell, La. If it weren’t for that, the handless corpse of Charles Fisher might have gone on rotting in a 160-quart ice chest for some while, and the Social Security Administration might still have been unaware that Debra Fisher and Heidi Todd were collecting his benefits.

On a warm March day last year, repairmen were sent to fix an air conditioner at a brick apartment complex on Military Road. They knocked on the door of the apartment of Charles Fisher, a man in his early 80s, who shared his home with his 58-year-old daughter and her roommate. But the two women refused in no uncertain terms to let them in.

The workers called his landlords, who realized it had been a while since they’d seen the old man who had leased the apartment. And, come to think of it, the women hadn’t wanted them inside, either. They had just assumed it was because Debra Fisher was a hoarder. But now the landlords were disturbed, and they called the authorities.

A team from the sheriff’s department showed up and found filthy living conditions but nothing else. “They were looking for a person,” a sheriff’s-office spokesman later said. “They didn’t think to look for an ice chest.”

But the deputies’ visit was apparently the breaking point for Debra, whom acquaintances described as already mentally ill. After they had left, she walked to the sheriff’s office three miles away, sat down, and turned herself in.

When sheriff’s deputies subsequently opened the ice chest, they discovered the half-mummified, half-liquefied body of Charles Fisher. Debra later admitted that she had cut her father’s hands off with an X-Acto knife and hidden them in a white plastic éclair box in her freezer; if she ever decided to dispose of the body, he would be much more difficult to identify because the authorities couldn’t take fingerprints, she had reasoned.

“It was terrible, because we really liked Mr. Charlie,” the dead man’s landlady told National Review Online. “He had been living there a good ten years. It just got suspicious when we realized we hadn’t seen him in a while.” The landlady said she believes Debra had a hard time letting go of her father’s corpse, a manifestation of her hoarding disorder.

But the court’s verdict suggests another motive: money. Debra and her roommate, Heidi, had apparently been living off the aging Charles’s Social Security checks for years. When her father died from a heart ailment, Debra later said, she feared she’d end up on the streets; she said she made only $400 a year working at a car dealership.

At first, Debra had left her father’s body in the bed where he had died, but when the corpse began to decompose, she came up with the plan of hiding it in the ice chest. Heidi reportedly did the heavy lifting. And when the Social Security payments arrived in the old man’s checking account, Debra would first pay the rent, then go online and transfer the remainder to her own account. All in all, she collected about $34,000 of Charles Fisher’s Social Security benefits.

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For many people, the death of a friend or relative becomes an opportunity to pocket Social Security funds. It happens more than you might think: In the last two-year period on record, the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General closed 979 such cases, securing 282 criminal convictions and recovering $16.6 million in purloined funds.

These fraud incidents generally fall into one of two categories. Most commonly, relatives simply fail to notify the Social Security Administration of the beneficiary’s death and continue to cash the checks. But there are also quite a few instances where fraudsters go to extreme lengths.

For example, in Michigan last year, a 72-year-old woman allegedly collected $28,000 in benefits issued to her boyfriend, who died of natural causes. Authorities struggled to come up with appropriate charges beyond theft, however: She reportedly never moved her boyfriend’s body from the recliner he had died in —  sometimes sitting beside him and watching NASCAR races on television — so they couldn’t press the charges that apply when someone tampers with or improperly disposes of a corpse.

In February of this year, an Ohio woman pleaded guilty to the theft of $142,000 — Social Security money she fraudulently collected after she buried her mother’s body in a yard in Florida.

In May, an Oregon caregiver admitted that she hid the body of an elderly charge almost two decades ago. She pleaded guilty to stealing more than $200,000 in Social Security retirement benefits since his death.

And last summer, a New York man who described himself as a fan of Norman Bates was sentenced to 41 years in prison. After his mother died, he had falsified the records, donned a platinum-blonde wig and a dress, and impersonated her, collecting more than $44,000 in benefits.

The SSA has few measures in place to verify whether a beneficiary is still alive; the agency’s stance has been that its primary function is to pay benefits, not ensure that death records are accurately maintained. It generally does not even check on beneficiaries who, according to official records, have lived long beyond the average life expectancy — partly out of tact, but more out of general carelessness, one suspects.

Instead, the SSA finds out about the death of a beneficiary from information provided by family members, funeral homes, other federal agencies, states, and even financial institutions. But those data often arrive in very rough form, and they may not even include accurate information about date of birth, date of death, or Social Security number.

In 2009, then-commissioner Michael J. Astrue told Congress that “it is extremely expensive and may even be impossible to determine if a person is alive or dead, particularly if the person died many years ago.”

When the SSA ends up paying benefits to the deceased, it’s almost always because of either fraud or a transcription error. And, unsurprisingly, it costs taxpayers big time.

It’s hard to come by statistics about how commonly people wrongfully collect benefits on behalf of the dead — precisely because the SSA doesn’t know when it happens — but a 2010 report from Senator Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) revealed that the agency had distributed $18 million in stimulus funds alone to 71,668 people who had already died.

When the Social Security Administration’s records are wrong, it has implications across the federal government. That’s because other federal programs — including Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps — rely on the SSA’s Death Master File to check on the status of beneficiaries. And until Congress intervened last year, the SSA did not even give other federal agencies access to its complete file for cross-checking beneficiaries’ status.

The cost adds up fast, according to the Coburn report: Dead farmers got $1.1 billion in subsidies from the Department of Agriculture; 11,000 dead people got $3.9 million from the Department of Health and Human Services to help pay for air conditioning and heat; Medicaid paid out more than $700,000 to cover the prescriptions of patients who had already died; and Medicare covered $8.2 million worth of medical supplies for the deceased. Fraudsters also stole the identities of doctors who had perished, charging Medicare for medical equipment and walking away with tens of millions of taxpayer dollars.

The report estimated that at least $1 billion has been wasted in these ways just since 2000. While some of these instances derive from simple errors, the report notes, the money frequently ended up in the hands of people who are deliberately “defrauding the system by collecting benefits meant for now-deceased relatives.”

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Debra Fisher was sentenced this March for her crimes: ten years in prison for Social Security theft and two three-year sentences for what she did to her father’s body, to be served concurrently. She must also pay back the money, the court ordered. Her roommate and accomplice, Heidi Todd, got three years. When I spoke with Fisher’s landlady, she cautioned me that perhaps this story wasn’t the best example of Social Security fraud; Debra was already mentally ill, she said.

Perhaps so — but there’s probably some insanity at work any time a person hacks apart and hides the body of a family member. Then again, there’s a twisted logic to such a calculation — lose the corpse and keep the money. Cash is always a powerful motive, and when a federal agency dispenses it without proper diligence, that can create the opportunity and the incentive for criminal behavior.

While it’s comforting in one way to know that death can evade the seemingly omniscient federal government, it becomes less so when you consider that the living are left to pay for the fraud. Taxpayers now have a truly morbid interest in the lives and deaths of their fellow citizens.

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

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