Feb 21, 2008

Dead Man Walking

I hate to post another story about a man mistakenly labeled as dead by the Social Security Administration, but wow! From the Times-Tribune of Pennsylvania:

The 64-year-old Green Ridge resident said a Social Security Administration worker admitted the agency mixed up a digit in his Social Security number and confused him with a dead man somewhere in California.

“I just want this resolved,” Mr. Bethel said from his Olyphant Avenue home. “I’m not speaking from the grave. At least, I don’t think I am.”

Mr. Bethel said his ordeal began in September 2005, when he received a letter from the Social Security Administration’s Scranton office notifying him he would soon begin receiving monthly payments on or about the 21st of each month.

The letter, which was followed by a timely benefits payment, was the beginning of “the end” for Mr. Bethel and his wife, Alma.

The following month, when his benefits check failed to appear in his checking account, Mr. Bethel questioned a teller who suggested he call Social Security.

“When I got home, I called them, and they asked me my name, birth date and mother’s maiden name, and I said I simply wanted to know what happened to my money,” he said.

The answer was downright chilling.

“Our records show that you’re dead,” Mr. Bethel said he was told. ...

“I was told to bring proof to the Social Security Administration, which is located at the Oppenheim building downtown. It was a weird thing, because all of their files were being moved and the office was being relocated to another floor. I was sitting at this table, and a worker comes back and tells me again that I’m dead.”

After the worker shared laughs with colleagues, joking that Mr. Bethel was a “dead man walking,” he was escorted to his bank, where things appeared to have been cleared up.

Mr. Bethel’s resurrection turned out to be short-lived.

Later, he was told to go to the Social Security Administration’s Wilkes-Barre office so he could resume receiving his benefits payments, which had ceased because of his “death.”

“The workers then informed the bank to disregard any notice of my being dead,” he said. However, after the bank received a subsequent deposit to Mr. Bethel’s account, the notice to disregard was, well, disregarded. Social Security Administration officials declined comment.

Mrs. Bethel received a letter from PennStar Bank expressing condolences over her husband’s “death” and informing her she was required to reimburse $841 in Social Security payments. ...

Mr. Bethel received a letter from the Internal Revenue Service dated April 27, 2007.

“According to the information provided to the IRS by the Social Security Administration, the primary Social Security number entered on your tax return is that of a deceased individual,” the letter stated. ...

Mr. Bethel followed that letter with one of his own, again including proof he is alive. On May 29, 2007, in an attempt to ensure the matter would be resolved, Mrs. Bethel called the IRS and was told by an agent to wait for a written response that would be mailed soon.

No response from the IRS ever came. Three weeks ago, however, the Bethels received a letter from the Social Security Administration’s Wilkes-Barre office.

“We are writing to you about earnings reported in your name ... because we’re not sure whether the earnings belong to you or someone else,” the letter read. ...

The Bethels recently filled out what they called a “mountain” of paperwork to refinance their home only to be told by the bank that Mr. Bethel is deceased and that it is the bank’s policy not to lend money to a dead person.

“I gave up on the refinancing,” he said. “I wasn’t going through that again.”

Last week, the Bethels spoke with Social Security officials and are optimistic they are finally close to resolving what has been a three-year mission to prove he’s alive.

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