RPAC at FGS Springfield 2016

The Federation of Genealogical Societies is celebrating its 40th Anniversary as a featured theme at its Annual Conference this week in Springfield, Illinois.  On this occasion, the Records Preservation and Access Committee is presenting a workshop session entitled “Striking a Balance Between Records Access and Privacy”  Thursday Afternoon the 1st of September at 3:30pm CDT in Room B1 of the Springfield Conference Center.

As genealogists we want access to all our ancestors’ records but as individuals we want information about ourselves to remain private.  Should the records of the living all be protected and the records of the deceased all be available?  At this session we will discuss many examples of records which are closed to access and other open records which may be closed in the future.

The syllabus for this session is found at:  RPAC at FGS Springfield 2016

The PowerPoint slides for this session will be posted to the Publications page of this Blog the morning of the session.


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RPAC at RootsTech 2016

The RootsTech 2016 Conference held last month in Salt Lake City has grown in the last six years to become the largest family history themed gathering in the United States, if not the world.  Although I have not seen the final “official” attendance numbers, the last number I recall hearing was in excess of 24,000.

The Records Preservation and Access Committee announced  the launch of the Records Advocate Blog on this occasion, a resource designed to alert subscribers of state, federal and international access issues throughout the year which may impact our family history research.  This and other pending topics were described in the attached flyer distributed at the FGS and IAJGS Booths in the Exhibit Hall and on other occasions.  RootsTech 2016 RPAC Flyer (002)

I was also privileged to deliver a presentation entitled “Closing Death Records: ‘Silver Bullet’ or Dead End?”  Among the more pleasant surprises coming out of RootsTech was that the rehearsal for my Friday  presentation which was videotaped on Thursday was subsequently displayed with the same accessibility as if it had been planned as part of the RootsTech video schedule all along.  I intend to continue to polish this presentation highlighting the folly of “Closing Death Records” and to seek every available forum to share that message.  http://www.rootstech.org/video2/4739709016001

UPDATED LINK TO Video:  https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/16962106/Moss%20-%20RootsTech2017-closing-death-records–.mp4

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Death Master File — Analysis — IRS Filters Really Work!

When presented graphically, the data reflected in the Charts quantifying the impact of the IRS Filters shared in the previous blog entry demonstrate patterns that are both clear and encouraging.  http://www.fgs.org/rpac/2016/01/08/death-master-file-impact-of-irs-filters-ty2010-ty2011-ty2012/

IRS Fraud $

Although scattered incidents of fraudulent tax returns involving identity theft were reported over a decade ago, their frequency and magnitude prior to 2010 could be said to fall within the noise level on the IRS radar.  The emphasis within the IRS and on Capital Hill was to expedite refund payments to the point that checks were being issued within days of electronic filing early in the filing season and well before the IRS would have received information returns that would be used months later to verify the accuracy of the data on the return justifying a significant refund.  Instead of taking steps designed to prevent improper payments, the IRS practice as 2011 began was to pay claimed refunds as quickly as possible and then chase the filer in a labor intensive effort to recover the fraudulent or otherwise improper payment.  http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-15-482T

As stories began to make headlines during 2011 of thieves filing fraudulent tax refund claims abusing the SSNs of recently deceased children, the public was made to realize that the harm being perpetrated was no longer just a manageable drain on the Treasury.  The disruption and pain inflicted upon the grieving parents (the legitimate taxpayers) for them felt like losing their child all over again.  The IRS was prompted to revisit the wisdom of continuing the “pay and chase” approach to correcting improper payments to possible identity thieves.  Prevention of fraudulent payments became a new focus of their enforcement efforts.

The comparison between the TY 2010 and TY2011 experience confirms the assertion that the IRS enforcement policies changed in December of 2011 to institute practices intended to prevent improper payments by diverting suspicious returns for further scrutiny before they were processed for payment.  The first year impact of this change in policy was dramatic, especially where the SSN of a deceased individual had been abused.


IRS Fraud Cases

Note:  12 Jan 2016 — Please expect additional materials to be added to this blog post in the next few days developing the implications of the data that has only become available well after the issue first became the focus of Congressional attention.  The initial narrative surrounding the situation suggested that the problem lay with the ready public availability of deceased person’s SSNs in the DMF, and that a simple fix would result by limiting access to the DMF.  I continue to assert that the real problem rose from the incredible vulnerability of the IRS online filing system and, in their haste to expedite the payment of refunds, the failure of the IRS  during 2011 to use the DMF [ listing, as it does, the no-longer-active SSNs of deceased persons]  or other filters to flag suspicious returns.  The effectiveness of the post-December 2011 IRS enforcement efforts is praiseworthy.


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Death Master File — Impact of IRS Filters TY2010, TY2011, TY2012

The issue of tax refund fraud by identity theft provides a unique opportunity to analyze significant data over a period of years in an effort to learn the right lessons about the phenomenon.  The sequence in which changes were made also makes it possible to assess the impact of different approaches to combating this crime.  The ongoing case study described in earlier Blog posts outlines a form that analysis might take.  http://www.fgs.org/rpac/2015/07/05/id360-closing-death-records-silver-bullet-or-detour-a-case-study/

Examining this essentially comparable  data from Tax Years 2010, 2011, and 2012 seems to validate my assertion that this approach helps to give us visibility over the effectiveness of the IRS efforts to combat tax refund fraud.  Recognizing that it may take over a year for a final determination to be made as to the validity of a tax return, we should anxiously pursue and evaluate the equivalent TY 2013 data at the earliest possible moment.   Meaningful information  may be gleaned from subsequent years as well.


I am reminded that it would have been TY 2010 transactions generating CY 2011 headlines and, thus,  TY 2010 data provides our best baseline against which to assess the impact of the evolving IRS use of filters to flag potentially fraudulent tax returns claiming inappropriate refunds.  Little, if any, fraud detection filtering was in place as TY 2010 returns were being processed with the primary emphasis being placed upon quick refund processing and payment.  In fact, refund checks were being written within days of receipt early in the filing season even before the IRS would have received information returns that would eventually be used to validate returns.  The Government Accountability Office has described this IRS business model  as a “Pay and Chase”  enforcement approach.  http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-15-482T

Addendum 12 Jan 2016:  During this baseline period, and until the closure mandated by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 took effect in March of 2014, DMF data was widely available from the official site at NTIS and elsewhere.  It should be noted, however, that in December of 2011 all of the major genealogical sites responded to the possibility that thieves might have gotten information used to file fraudulent tax returns from their resources by masking the display of deceased persons SSNs for a minimum of three years after their death.


If, as reported, the IRS began the use of fraud detection filters (likely including the Death Master File) in December 2011, we should not be surprised that TY 2011 data reflects a significant reduction in the number of undetected fraudulent returns involving the SSNs of deceased individuals.   In TY 2010,  the 104,950 deceased cases represented slightly over 7% of the total 1,492,215 potentially fraudulent tax refunds paid that year.  In TY 2011, the 19,102 deceased cases represented approximately 2% of the total 1,086,998 cases.  The pleasant surprise occurs when one considers the extent to which the IRS development of a series of filters, scoring algorithms and clustering methodologies over the last four years has improved the detection of identity theft returns involving the living, a far more difficult task.TIGTA TY2012

TY 2012 improved further with 12,338 deceased cases representing slightly over 1.5% of the total 787,343 cases determined to be potentially fraudulent.  The dollar amounts of the TY 2012 questionable refunds involving the SSNs of deceased individuals ($22,239,751) represented barely 1% of the $2,137,397,982 total.

These results are clearly consistent with the assertion that the IRS, once they began to develop filters to flag potentially fraudulent tax returns in December 2011, continued to expand and improve the events which would prompt additional scrutiny of a return before a refund check would be processed. That initial set of filters used in processing Tax Year 2011 returns using 11 filters was increased to more than 80 for Processing Year 2013 generating the further improvements seen in the Tax Year 2012 results above.

A subsequent blog entry will provide further analysis of this information and explore the implications of these findings.









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IRS DOES Use the Death Master File . . . NOW (since 2012) !

When egregious examples of tax fraud by identity theft using the Social Security Numbers of recently deceased children began making headlines in 2011, the initial narrative became that the public availability of their SSNs in the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File (DMF) facilitated this despicable crime.  Recognition that the vulnerability to this fraud was the inevitable result of the emphasis to expedite the payment of tax refund claims rather than actually using the DMF to flag fraudulent returns was not reflected in the early Congressional hearings addressing this issue.  Efforts on the part of the genealogical community urging the IRS to do so essentially fell upon deaf ears and were never officially acknowledged.

Only recently have members of the Congress begun to ask the right questions and to focus on solutions that could actually intercept this particular form of fraud.  A May 18, 2015 letter from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch addressed to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen specifically sought “assurances that the IRS is doing all that it can feasibly do, with full Death Master File data available to it, to prevent tax fraud.”     5 18 2015 letter to IRS Regarding Death Master File

The letter cites a Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) report quite clearly identifying that: “The Death Master File is one of the Government’s most effective tools against financial fraud.” (emphasis added)  Furthermore the TIGTA report indicates that the IRS first developed identity theft filters for use in Processing Year 2012.

The penultimate paragraph of the Senator’s letter laments the fact that legislation limiting access to and content of the DMF (Section 203 of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013) was written outside of regular order in the Senate. He further suggests that the predictable and unfortunate result may well be that the costs of denying access to legitimate users may outweigh whatever benefits may be claimed in thwarting identity theft.

The IRS response describes in some detail ways in which they use the DMF as a tool to combat identity theft and refund fraud.  6 8 Hatch Response 68790

“Over the past four years, the IRS has developed a series of filters, scoring algorithms, and clustering methodologies that significantly improved the detection of identity theft returns.”  They assert that “[e]very year our filters have stopped more fraudulent refund claims from being paid than they did in the prior year.”

In subsequent posts I anticipate sharing additional data that gives visibility over the effectiveness of the IRS fraud prevention efforts.

Spoiler Alert:  By the time limitations on public access to the DMF were statutorily mandated by the Bipartisan Budget Act in December of 2013, the IRS was already accomplishing all of the potential benefits claimed for closure by more targeted, less disruptive measures.



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Library of Michigan — Good News

With thanks to Cynthia Grostick, Michigan RPAC State Liaison.

The Library of Michigan will expand its hours and services to better serve Michigan citizens and state government as announced in a recent News Release.


Few topics have demanded the concern and attention of the entire genealogical community as much as the critical developments accompanying this issue in the years since 2009.

Threats to our access to records have taken many forms but particularly vexing in recent years have been those threats arising out of the fiscal crisis.  From every corner of the country we have seen library and archive budgets slashed, hours curtailed, and severe staff reductions.

The very survival of some of our best resources has been threatened.  In addressing a $2 Billion deficit in the Michigan budget, then Governor Jennifer M. Granholm issued an executive order in July 2009 which abolished the Department of History, Arts and Libraries. There was a proposal that surfaced in the summer of 2009 that would have dismantled the Library of Michigan, scattered the materials gathered over 180 years occupying 27 miles of shelving and turned the building into an interactive museum and a magnet school.

Posts to this RPAC Blog have included the following:






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National Archives Digitization Priorities; Maximizing Values Through Web and Social Media

With thanks to Jan Miesels Allen.

Archives Logo

In September  the (US) National Archives asked for public suggestions and feedback as to digitization priorities. They have now listed those prioritizes. The overwhelming response was to digitize records of genealogical interest. This included immigration and ethnic heritage records, military and veterans records and those records with preservation concerns. The National Archives has already started to digitize and they will be available in the National Archives Catalog in a few months.

To read more about the results and a partial list of the top priorities see: http://narations.blogs.archives.gov/

Aotus Blog

The mission of the National Archives is to make the holdings of the U.S. Government available to the public. As part of American Archives Month they announced in FY 2015 over 24 million people reviewed more than 80 million pages on Archives.gov—a substantial increase over FY 2014—more than one-third of the website sessions were from a mobile or tablet device.  National Archives contributes to 130 social media accounts—almost 250 million people viewed content on social media platforms.

To read more see: http://aotus.blogs.archives.gov/2015/10/09/by-the-numbers-maximizing-value-through-web-and-social-media/  

Jan Meisels Allen

Chairperson, IAJGS Public Records Access Monitoring Committee




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August is the Right Time to Tell Your Senators About Your Record Access Concerns

With thanks to Jan Alpert, RPAC Chair:

Talking Points One Pager:  RecessVisitsTalkingPoints2015Final

If you have ever used the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), now is the time for you to write your United States Senator. Section 203 of the 2013 Bipartisan Budget Act, which went into effect 29 March 2014, closed access to the Death Master File (used by genealogists as the Social Security Death Index) for three years after an individual’s death. Access during the three-year embargo is limited to persons certified by the Commerce Department. Certification costs $400; the annual cost to access the data is $995; the available data is limited; the search engine inadequate; and recent audit and security requirements will make access unaffordable by even professional genealogists. The Final Rule for the certification process is expected from the Commerce Department any day. Genealogists need to be further concerned because the Social Security Administration (SSA) has been reporting less information since November 2011 when several states notified the SSA that its information could no longer be released to the public. This widely used national death database is being whittled away because of concerns about tax fraud of the deceased.

The Records Preservation and Access Committee (RPAC) and several of our participating organizations have written the Commerce Department and key legislators on this issue over the last several years.  Although genealogists are also concerned about identity theft of the deceased, we strongly believe the problem can be solved by omitting the Social Security Number (SSN) of the deceased from the Social Security Death Index. In addition progress has been made by the IRS in developing filters which flag fraudulent income tax returns. The Treasury Inspector General Tax Administration (TIGTA) Reports for 2011 and 2012 said less than 2% of all fraudulent tax refunds involved the deceased.

At the end of July the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved SB 1073, Stopping Improper Payments to Deceased People Act.  The bill was approved in a “business meeting” without a hearing. RPAC is making contacts with several Senators who could introduce the Amendment from the floor. Our request is simple, amend Section 203 of the 2013 Bipartisan Budget Act so the information in the Death Master File can be released to the public except for the Social Security Number.

Congress is currently recessed until 7 September 2015. Now is a good time to contact your Senators, either in person or by writing a letter. We have included talking points that you can use to make a personal visit or write a letter.  We need your support. For additional background visit the RPAC Blog at http://www.fgs.org/rpac  and see the posts on 1 April 2015, “DMF—Comment Period on Proposed Final Rule Closed 30 March,” and under the Publications tab, “SSDI Timeline, 19 January 2015.”

The Records Preservation and Access Committee (RPAC), is a national committee sponsored by the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS), the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS), and the National Genealogical Society (NGS) and supported by the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG), the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG), the American Society of Genealogists (ASG), and the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists (ICAPGen). Members of RPAC meet monthly to advise the genealogical community on ensuring proper access to vital records and on supporting strong records preservation policies and practices.

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ID360 — Closing Death Records: “Silver Bullet” or Detour? — A Case Study — Updated

Last Fall, the readers of this blog were introduced to the work of the Center for Identity at the University of Texas.   http://www.fgs.org/rpac/2014/10/23/id-wise-from-the-center-for-identity/  

The Center for Identity sponsored the ID360 Conference in Austin last month at which speakers and panels of experts shared insights and at which a number of scholarly papers were presented.  2015 ID360 Foreword & Table of Contents

I was privileged to participate in the ID360 conference  and to share an on-going case study entitled  Closing Death Records:  “Silver Bullet” or Detour?,  A case study of Section 203 of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013.  Moss – Closing Death Records – Silver Bullet or Detour 

ID360 Poster

This poster was developed to facilitate discussion of the major findings  of a case study based upon Section 203 of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 which suggests that closing death records to combat identity theft is likely to be counterproductive.

Check back for further updates.  I am scheduled to present this on-going case study at the University of Kansas Law School on Monday, the 6th of July.   More to come.


KU Law

The 2011 Paradigm which provided a rationale for closing the Death Master File in 2013 assumed:  (1)  The DMF/SSDI was a substantial source of SSNs used in filing fraudulent tax returns in 2011.  (2) SSNs of deceased individuals needed to be protected in the same way we safeguard those of the living.  (3) Simple fix [Silver Bullet?] — just limit access to DMF.  (4)  Unstated Assumption: Nothing would be lost by closing this resource.

Preliminary analysis of the publically available data suggests that none of these assumptions withstand rigorous scrutiny.  My thesis is that limiting access to death records was not the best or only way to reduce identity theft and that better alternatives are available.  This should be a recurring theme this fall and beyond.


This evolving case study has also been accepted for presentation at the RootsTech2016  Conference next February.  Preliminary analysis of additional data recently made available suggests that once the IRS starting using filters (likely including the DMF) in Dec 2011, they demonstrated a commendable and improving level of success in intercepting fraudulent tax returns using the SSNs of deceased individuals.





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Virginia Vital Records Online

With thanks to Peter E. Broadbent, Jr. 

More than 16 million Virginia vital records have been digitized and indexed as a result of collaboration between Ancestry and the Virginia Department of Health (VDH).  These records were officially released to the public on June 2, 2015.

For vital records which are now “open”, the image of the original vital record can be viewed online through Ancestry; for records which are still “closed’, an index with key information is available online through VDH.  Virginia death, marriage and divorce records are “closed” for 25 years; Virginia births are “closed” for 100 years.

Virginia has required localities to maintain birth, marriage and death records in the 20th century since 1912.  The Virginia vital records presently available through Ancestry are birth and death records from 1912 to 2014, divorce records from 1918 to 2014, and marriage records from 1936 to 2014.  Presumably 1912-1936 marriages will be added later.  The birth records released include delayed births going back to 1864, but recorded after 1912.

For those without an Ancestry subscription, try www.vdh.state.va.us/vital_records/ for the index.  Library of Virginia patrons who are physically at the Library can also access the Ancestry database free of charge.

A link to the vital records index will subsequently be placed on the Library of Virginia website, and all original vital records will be turned over to the Library of Virginia by VDH as they become “open”, commencing later this year.

Virginia vital records for the period 1853-1896 are held by the Library of Virginia, which plans to solicit proposals to have these records also scanned and indexed by a private partner.

Virginia law did not require that vital records be recorded during the period 1896-1912, but a number of local health departments (Lynchburg, Newport News, Norfolk, Petersburg, Portsmouth, Richmond, Roanoke and Elizabeth City County [Hampton]) continued to record vital records during this “gap” period.  Some of these groups of records are still held locally, but it is believed that VDH has at least one – Newport News.  It is hoped that some of these city records will be found when the VDH original records are turned over to the Library of Virginia, and that all surviving records for this gap period can eventually be placed online.

This important new access to Virginia vital records occurred directly as a result of the Virginia Genealogical Society’s efforts in 2011 – 2012.  VGS members wrote key legislators, and former VGS President Peter Broadbent lead the effort in meetings with legislators.

In 2011 VGS became aware that a legislative study was underway which proposed to substantially lengthen the “closed” period for Virginia records, and VGS members started to work on stopping this in the 2012 General Assembly, arguing instead for shortening the “closed” period and improving access.  Delegate Chris Peace’s 2012 HB 272 successfully reduced the “closed” time period from 50 to 25 years for death, marriage and divorce records.  Senator Harry Blevins’ 2012 SB 660 similarly reduced those “closed” time periods, and went on to require that original vital records be turned over to the Library of Virginia, and directed VDH to enter into a long-term contract with a private company experienced in maintaining genealogical databases to create, maintain and update online indexes of vital records linked to original images for “open” records.  Senator Blevins’ legislative aide, Karen Papasodora-Cochrane, was very helpful in working for passage of this bill.  The partnership between VDH and Ancestry, and release of vital records which occurred June 2, 2015 were a direct result of SB 660.

Former VGS President Peter Broadbent (currently Chairman of the Library of Virginia) and Librarian of Virginia Sandy Treadway were guests at Governor McAuliffe’s June 2  press conference with VDH Health Commissioner Marissa Levine, and Quinton Atkinson of Ancestry, announcing the release of the vital records online.

The online availability of an index to all modern Virginia vital records, and the online availability of scanned images for “open” records, have now created the largest scale and most comprehensive online availability of vital records by any state in the United States.  Both VDH and Ancestry report that other state vital records offices are now contacting them seeking more information about Virginia’s model of improved vital records access, which may hopefully mean that other states will follow this example of public-private cooperation and improved access to these public records.


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