Genealogists’ Declaration of Rights — We Need Your Support!

With thanks to RPAC Chair, Jan Alpert.

DeclarationSignaturePageOrganizational 2015

Did you know that a date of death is no longer added to the Social Security Death Index until three years after the event occurs?

 

Did you know the State Vital Records Officers have a Model Act which if passed in your state will close access to birth record for 125 years, marriage records for 100 years, and death records for 75 years?

 

GENEALOGISTS NEED TO WORK TOGETHER AND SPEAK-UP IF WE ARE TO REVERSE THESE RECENT TRENDS! We need to let Congress and our state legislatures know that genealogists need access to public records and GENEALOGISTS VOTE! You can help by signing the Genealogists’ Declaration of Rights and by asking the societies to which you belong to encourage members to also sign the Declaration.

 

The Records Preservation and Access Committee (RPAC) has obtained 8,000 signatures over the last year including more than 1,500 at the national genealogy conferences, over 2,300 at regional, state, and local societies, and 4,100 online signatures. WE NEED 10,000 SIGNATURES BY THE END OF 2015 FOR GENEALOGISTS TO MAKE A STRONG STATEMENT IN SUPPORT OF OPEN ACCESS TO PUBLIC RECORDS.

 

We need YOU to sign the Declaration. Take five minutes and sign at http://bit.ly/gen-declaration.

 

Spread the word! Take a copy of the Declaration signature form to your local society and obtain more signatures. The signature form for organizations can be found on this RPAC Blog at the top of this posting.

 

Keep reading if you want more details about how access for genealogists has been restricted this year. There’s bad news, but there’s good news, too.

 

  • 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 new audit and security requirements will make access unaffordable by even professional genealogists.
  • Since 1 November 2011, the public DMF/SSDI has omitted those deaths which were reported only by states. The Social Security Administration also omits geographic data, although data aggregators such as Ancestry have been able to add data such as state of issue back into the SSDI based upon the first three digits of the SSN.
  • Genealogists have had no access to death records in Oklahoma since a version of the 2011 Revision of the Model Vital Statistics Act was passed in 2012. Efforts to amend the law and provide access to attorneys did not make it out of committee in the 2015 legislative session.
  • The Kansas Supreme Court has a proposed Rule 106 which would redact the mother’s maiden name, date of birth, and city and state of birth from marriage licenses. RPAC and Kansas genealogy organizations have written the court but the procedures for implementation of a judicial rule are not clear so RPAC is continuing to follow up.

 

Where genealogists have been actively involved, access to vital records has improved. On a positive note genealogists from some states have been able to reverse the closure trend:

 

  • Death Records in Virginia are closed for only 25 years. Images of Virginia Death Records 1912-2014 and Marriage Records 1936-2014 are available at the Library of Virginia and on Ancestry.com through 1987.
  • See the 14 June 2015 RPAC Blog post, “Virginia Vital Records Online,” at http://www.fgs.org/RPAC for more details.
  • Pennsylvania death records have been digitized from 1906 to 1963 and are also available in the state and on Ancestry.com. Pennsylvania death records are closed for 50 years.
  • The Michigan State Archives has recently added free digitized copies of death records from 1921-1952 to its earlier collection of imaged death records from 1897-1920.

 

For current updates on access issues check the RPAC Blog at http://www.fgs.org/RPAC.

 

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RPAC and the Congressional History Caucus

With thanks to Jan Alpert.

At the end of 2014, RPAC was invited to join the National Coalition for History (NCH) which was approved by the sponsoring organizations of RPAC (FGS, IAJGS, and NGS) for calendar year 2015. You can learn more about the National Coalition for History and the participating organizations on its website: http://historycoalition.org/.

 

One of the National Coalition for History’s major initiatives is the Congressional History Caucus. The caucus aims to provide a forum for members of Congress to share their interest in history and to promote an awareness of the subject on Capital Hill, using the members of the NHC as a resource. The caucus provides the opportunity for NCH members to build lasting relationships between Members of Congress and historians, archivists, teachers, students, genealogists, researchers and other stakeholders in their respective districts.

 

For the last few years RPAC has been responding to regulations and legislation that threaten access to state and federal records. We view the Congressional History Caucus as a way to have a positive, proactive influence on members of Congress. We need you to ask your representative to become a member of the History Caucus be either calling or sending an email. Detailed information about the caucus and its sponsors can be found at http://historycoalition.org/congressional-history-caucus/. The link also includes instructions about how to contact your Congressperson.

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DMF — Comment period on Proposed Final Rule closed 30 March — Updated

Section 203 of The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 directed the Secretary of Commerce to develop a certification program limiting access to the Social Security Administration’s  Death Master File (DMF), also known to most genealogists as the Social Security Death Index (SSDI).  For over a year, Commerce has pursued a robust notice and comment process leading, most recently,  to an opportunity for the public to provide comments on a proposed Final Rule.

By the time the comment period closed on Monday, the 30th of March, over ninety parties had docketed statements now appearing at:  http://www.regulations.gov/#!docketBrowser;rpp=25;po=0;dct=PS;D=DOC-2014-0001 .

The RPAC statement is here:Comments_on_DMF_Final_Rule_from_RPAC_Jan_2015_final

The IAJGS Statement is here:  IAJGS_Statement_on_Final_Rule_for_Accesss_to_DMF-finalc

and the FGS statement is here:  FGS Response to proposed Final Rule 30 March 2015

Statements from other members of the genealogical community were particularly informative.  Examples include:

(1) Dee Dee King Comment #11 on FR Doc # 2014-30199

(2)  Polly FitzGerald Kimmitt  Comment #2 on FR Doc # 2014-30199

(3)  Leslie Lawson  Comment #10 on FR Doc # 2014-30199

(4) Judge Nathan White  Comment #33 on FR Doc # 2015-01546

The Executive Summary of the FGS statement provides:  “While commending the work of NTIS in crafting regulations implementing Section 203 of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, as written, we suggest areas where changes in legislative language might enhance the ability to (1) achieve the stated goal of reducing the opportunities for identity theft, and (2) minimize the unintended adverse consequences of limiting access and content available to legitimate users.  Further question whether these provisions belong in permanent legislation and suggest ways of assessing their effectiveness and the impact of more targeted measures.  A rigorous case study may be appropriate.”

Initiatives to restrict access to records – Targeting the Data

In recent years we have seen more than a thousand legislative initiatives impacting access to records at the Federal, state and local levels, the vast majority of which would have had the effect of limiting that access for genealogical and other purposes.  The rationale used to justify these measures suggests an almost reflexive belief that the best or only way to prevent the fraudulent use of such data by identity thieves is to close the records.  This logic carries with it the unstated assumption that no harm or loss accompanies such closures.

Not only do members of the genealogical community describe the harm done by closing this record, some interesting allies are being found.  Additional dramatic examples of the unintended consequences of closing the DMF are also provided by  those involved in federal program evaluation and related research among others:

(1) American Economics Association  Comment #44 on FR Doc # 2015-01546

(2)  Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics  Comment #27 on FR Doc # 2015-01546undefined

[We will supplement this post in coming days after we review and can highlight materials contributed by others.]  Done 17 April 2015.

 

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Kansas Supreme Court Rule would redact Marriage Certificates

With thanks to Jan Alpert and Jan Meisels Allen

The Judicial Administration in Labette County, Kansas recently began redacting some of the marriage information when responding to a request for copy of a marriage certificate. They were challenged as to their authority for making the redactions. It appears that as a result the challenge, the Judicial Administration in Labette County petitioned the Kansas Supreme Court to make the change to Rule 106. The Kansas Council of Genealogical Societies (KCGS) has pointed out that in proposing the change to Rule 106, the court is taking on a legislative function by trying to amend the Kansas Open Records Act. KCGS contacted RPAC for permission to use some of the information we have written on other record access issues. RPAC then worked with KCGS in coordinating our statements to the Court.

 

Attached is a letter recently sent by the Kansas Council of Genealogical Societies, Inc. to the Kansas Supreme Court. Public comments may be addressed to Publiccomments@kscourts.org until April 12, 2015. Genealogists are encouraged to write.

KCGS letter is here  KCGSSupremeCourtResponse.

RPAC letter is here RPAC letter Kansas Supreme Court Rule 106.

IAJGS letter is here IAJGS Letter to KS Supreme Court Re Rule 106.

 

Genealogists is other states need to be aware that most state legislatures are now in session and legislation or administrative rules could be introduced which restrict access to vital records in your state. If you are facing new legislation contact RPAC at access@fgs.org for assistance in coordinating the participation and response from both the state and national genealogical organizations.

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Part 4 – DMF Paradigm – Analysis Begins

The previous articles in this series are found at:

Part 1 —  http://www.fgs.org/rpac/2015/01/09/the-death-master-file-paradigm-introduction/

Part 2 — http://www.fgs.org/rpac/2015/01/21/dmf-paradigm-part-2-what-we-thought-we-knew-in-2011/

Part 3 — http://www.fgs.org/rpac/2015/03/06/part-3-dmf-paradigm-countermeasures-taken/

What Do We Know Now That We Did Not Know in 2011?

The data necessary to initially determine the nature and magnitude of tax fraud by identity theft cases in 2011 would not become available until the fall of 2013 with the publication of the report of the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration dated September 20, 2013 found at:  http://www.treasury.gov/tigta/auditreports/2013reports/201340122fr.pdf

The chart below is drawn from Tax Year 2011 tax returns, those filed in early 2012.  Please note that the only SSNs that would appear in the DMF/SSDI would be the “Deceased” Category.  The IRS was utilizing a limited screening filter that appears not to have used the DMF to flag for special attention returns citing the SSNs of deceased individuals.

The following chart is particularly informative:

TIGTA Fig 4

In December 2011, genealogical web sites began masking the SSNs of recently deceased persons and the IRS reportedly significantly improved their software filters.  Even with deceased SSNs “exposed” during 2011, the 19,102 suspicious returns listed above represented less than 2% of the 1,086,998 potentially fraudulent returns filed in 2011.

Limitations on access to the DMF will have no impact on cases representing the misuse of the SSNs of living individuals (all the other categories in the chart above and representing the other 98% of the cases) nor SSNS of deceased individuals from compromised medical records.

Comparable 2012 data should give some measure of the effectiveness of the IRS improved filters.  The IRS should be directed to report to the Congress data that would provide a basis for measuring the extent of improvement in their screening filters and other measures to they are taking to deter fraudulent tax refunds involving identity theft.  Hopefully even this relatively small incidence of fraudulent use of deceased SSNs will be further reduced.

Both the Federal Trade Commission and the Taxpayer Advocate Service are reporting a significant increase (doubling?) in complaints of fraudulent tax returns involving identity theft.  We should be concerned that final 2012 data will show a dramatic increase in cases impacting the living.

 

Several additional posts addressing additional aspects of this topic are anticipated, including:

Part 5 – DMF Paradigm – Lessons Learned As Stakeholders Speak

Part 6 – DMF Paradigm — Suggested Paradigm Shifts

Part 7 — DMF Paradigm — Access, Preservation or Replacement Issue?

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Part 3 – DMF Paradigm – Countermeasures Taken

The previous articles in this series are found at:

Part 1 —  http://www.fgs.org/rpac/2015/01/09/the-death-master-file-paradigm-introduction/

Part 2 — http://www.fgs.org/rpac/2015/01/21/dmf-paradigm-part-2-what-we-thought-we-knew-in-2011/

Changes on Genealogical Websites

As the tax filing season opened in early 2011, the SSDI was freely accessible by the general public from a number of web sites, to include most of the major sites serving the genealogical community without requiring a subscription or login.  Several Senators, including members of the Senate Finance Committee, voiced their concerns in a December 1, 2011 letter addressed to the CEO of Ancestry.com Inc.12-1-11 Ancestry.com – Tim Sullivan and asked that they and other genealogical sites remove SSNs from their posting of the SSDI.  http://www.brown.senate.gov/newsroom/press/release/after-call-from-sen-brown-ancestrycom-removes-social-security-numbers-from-website-to-prevent-fraud

Ancestry.com and other genealogical web sites immediately took measures designed to prevent the abuse of their resources by thieves.  In addition to putting this data behind their subscription pay wall, Ancestry chose to conceal the SSN of the deceased for a period of time, even for their subscribers.  Other genealogical sites took similar measures. http://www.abc2news.com/dpp/news/local_news/investigations/website-stops-displaying-social-security-numbers-for-recently-dead

 

And the IRS Improves Their Use of Filters

Although we do not expect the Internal Revenue Service to describe in detail the use and coverage of their filters, it was clear that in CY 2011, their very limited review of TY 2010 returns claiming a refund did not use the DMF to flag returns for further scrutiny.

For Tax Year 2012, the information provided by the witnesses at the April 16, 2013 Senate Finance Committee hearing entitled “Tax Fraud and Tax ID Theft:  Moving Forward with Solutions” gave multiple reasons to be encouraged by the actions being taken to combat refund fraud and help victims of identity theft.  Their written statements are available at:  http://www.finance.senate.gov/hearings/hearing/?id=62739085-5056-a032-5281-4500bf4d4fb3  The testimony of Steven T. Miller, Acting Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service described a number of significant steps they have taken including (1)  much improved screening filters “to spot false returns before we process them and issue refunds”, (2)  expanded criminal investigations, and (3)  prosecution of the perpetrators.

Appropriate prosecution and sentencing of those perpetrating tax fraud related to identity theft has the potential of not only thwarting their predations but should serve as a deterrent to others tempted to follow their example.  This begins to look like progress.

 

Several additional posts addressing additional aspects of this topic are anticipated, including:

Part 4 – DMF Paradigm –  Analysis Begins

Part 5 – DMF Paradigm – Lessons Learned As Stakeholders Speak

Part 6 – DMF Paradigm — Suggested Paradigm Shifts

Part 7 — DMF Paradigm — Access, Preservation or Replacement Issue?

 

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RPAC at FGS/RootsTech 2015

Access to Vital Records is Under Attack! How Can You Help?

Thursday, 12 February 2015, Session T221, 4:30 p.m., Room 255A

Vital records are being threatened at both the state and federal level. Learn about the 2011 Revision of the Model State Vital Statistics Act, which if passed in your state will close access to birth records for 125 years and death records for 75 years.

Also learn about how the 2013 Bipartisan Budget Act signed at the end of 2013 has limited access to the Social Security Death Index for three years after someone’s death. Although the Interim Rule allowed forensic genealogists to become certified for access to the Limited Death Master File during the embargo period, the proposed final rule increases the costs and security requirements making access prohibitive for a small business which includes forensic and professional genealogists.

Attend session T 221 and learn how the genealogical community has responded to these attacks and how you can help.

RPAC has initiated a “Genealogists’ Declaration of Rights” advocating open access to federal, state, and local public records. More than 5,000 genealogists have signed online at http://bit.ly/gen-declaration or at conferences and other gatherings of genealogists. Stop by the RPAC Booth #1115 and sign the Declaration in the Exhibit Hall.  For more detail see our previous blog post at:  http://www.fgs.org/rpac/2014/11/06/genealogists-declaration-of-rights-we-need-your-support/

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ALERT — Proposed Major Cuts to the Indiana State Library Budget

Indiana State Library

With a more than $2 billion state budget surplus, the  2015 state budget proposed by the administration provides for  a 25% cut to the Indiana State Library’s funding.  This proposal specifically targets cuts against state-wide access to informational and educational databases and would eliminate the Genealogy Department.  It would reduce the Library staff by 10%.

The Indiana Genealogical Society seeks our help in a blog post found at:  http://indgensoc.blogspot.com/2015/01/proposed-elimination-of-genealogy-at.html .

RPAC will monitor these developments and perhaps suggest additional measures in coordination with the efforts of the Indiana Genealogical Society.  In the meantime, we encourage that all concerned about these issues give consideration to signing the Genealogists’ Declaration of Rights at http://www.fgs.org/rpac/2014/11/06/genealogists-declaration-of-rights-we-need-your-support/

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DMF Paradigm — Part 2 — What We Thought We Knew in 2011

The previous article in this series is found at:

Part 1 — http://www.fgs.org/rpac/2015/01/09/the-death-master-file-paradigm-introduction/

Readers are encouraged to review the earlier article, beginning with the Introductory Video by Stephen Covey.

When fraudulent tax returns filed by identity thieves using the social security numbers of recently deceased children broke into the headlines in 2011, data was simply not available for analysis that would help define how thieves were doing business nor the magnitude of the problem.  Only after both legitimate and questionable returns had been resolved by the Internal Revenue Service, a process frequently requiring more than a year to complete, would that information become available.

Early Congressional hearings highlighting these despicable acts reflected the limited knowledge available.  The hearing held by the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways & Means Committee on the 2nd of February 2012 is among the most notable.  It has prompted several postings in this RPAC Blog. The one at http://www.fgs.org/rpac/2012/02/12/ssdi-their-vision-of-our-future/  links to the official video of the proceedings that is also recommended for viewing by every genealogist using the Social Security Death Index.

Social Security Administration Commissioner Astrue initially appears as a one-person panel for the first thirty minutes of the hearing, the video for which is found at:  http://waysandmeans.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=2&clip_id=133    In testimony beginning near minute 26, Commissioner Astrue suggests as a possible approach being considered by the Administration that genealogists perhaps could wait for up to 75 years to have access to the DMF file data.  He also suggests that genealogists can gain access to the data we need from alternative sources.  A snippet of this testimony is found at:  http://youtu.be/HuSVZvMmN5A .

Jonathan Agin’s initial testimony begins after Chairman Johnson introduces the public panel at approximately 34 minutes into the proceedings.  While answering questions at 1:00, Mr. Agin  speculates that his thief got his daughter’s SSN from the DMF/SSDI  and opines about who REALLY needs access to the DMF at 1:03.

His role also demonstrates the power of labels and creating the narrative surrounding how an issue is initially presented.  “Social Security Fraud” will find a sympathetic audience before a subcommittee whose jurisdictional limits provides oversight for the SSA.  Addressing “tax refund fraud by identity theft” would have required the involvement of a different congressional forum.  Thus the proposed remedy became the closing of the DMF without addressing the incredible vulnerability of the IRS online filing system.  Jurisdictional sensitivities also provide a somewhat more “innocent” explanation of why our offers to provide a genealogical witness for this hearing were so pointedly rebuffed.

Flowing from this hearing the following narrative emerges:

  1. The DMF/SSDI was a substantial source of the SSNs used in filing fraudulent tax returns.
  2. SSNs of deceased individuals need to be protected in the same ways we seek to safeguard those of the living.
  3. Simple fix available (Silver Bullet?):  Just limit access to the DMF/SSDI.
  4. Unstated assumption:  Nothing would be lost by closing this resource.

 

This narrative would become the paradigm driving Congressional attention and numerous legislative proposals to include the only one to  be enacted thus far, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013.

 

Several additional posts addressing additional aspects of this topic are anticipated, including:

Part 3 – DMF Paradigm – Countermeasures Taken

Part 4 – DMF Paradigm –  Analysis Begins

Part 5 – DMF Paradigm – Lessons Learned As Stakeholders Speak

Part 6 – DMF Paradigm — Suggested Paradigm Shifts

Part 7 — DMF Paradigm — Access, Preservation or Replacement Issue?

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The Death Master File Paradigm — Introduction

Part of the lasting legacy left by the late Dr. Stephen Covey may be memorialized in his nine minute discussion of the concept of paradigms and paradigm shifts found in the video at:  www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZUKn-Ngzko .

Our understanding of how the provisions of Section 203 of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 came about  limiting access to the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File (also known as the Social Security Death Index) DMF/SSDI  may be enhanced by using Dr. Covey’s explanation of a paradigm as a frame of reference.  A nearby posting gives notice of the current opportunity for the public to comment upon a proposed final rule implementing this statute before the 29th of January.

In coming days I intend to post a series of articles to the RPAC Blog acknowledging the need for a paradigm shift in addressing the issues surrounding the issues of tax fraud by identity theft and possible abuses of the SSA’s Death Master File.

Interested readers will be well advised to invest the nine minutes required to review this video.  My thesis is that we may have tried to navigate the streets of Portland using a mislabeled map of Seattle (an observation that may make more sense after viewing Dr. Covey’s instruction.)

Please check back.

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