Dead or alive? The government isn't quite sure sometimes

Errors in the government's Death Master File are costing taxpayers billions and creating nightmares for those wrongly declared dead

Preview: Dead or Alive 01:57

It's no joke to find out the government thinks you're dead. Try to take money out of your bank or try to get a loan. You can't if a misheard phone conversation or an errant key stroke put you on the Social Security Administration's Death Master File. And to add insult to injury, your taxes are being misspent to the tune of billions on benefits still being paid in the name of others who are really are dead, but not in the file. Scott Pelley reports on the U.S. government's Death Master File and how its inaccuracies will soon be the subject of a congressional hearing. Pelley's report will be broadcast on 60 Minutes Sunday, March 15 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.

An excerpt of Pelley's 60 Minutes story was broadcast t on the CBS Evening News. A transcript of Pelley's Evening News story follows:

Scott Pelley: How many of you have been declared dead by the federal government? All of you. You're looking pretty well to me.

This would be a séance except these are living, breathing Americans that we conjured up from around the country-- all declared dead by the Social Security Administration. Don Pilger passed away when he tried to report the death of his wife.

Scott Pelley: This is a form from the Social Security Administration. The idea was you were going to call this number and essentially report that your wife had passed.

Don Pilger: Exactly. And that's what I did on the following Monday. Eight days later I went to access my bank account and it was-- they kept saying, "Invalid pin." So I went to the bank and I give the lady the problem I was having. She typed my numbers into the computer and she grabbed my hand, she says, "Mr. Pilger, I don't believe this. They reported you deceased and not your wife."

Kristina Pace's life was cut short at an early age.

Kristina Pace: I was in college. I walked into the bank to open up an account and same thing. "We can't help you." "Well, why?" "You're coming up as deceased. You need to go to Social Security office." And I did. But just randomly years later it would come up. I'd want to get a car or something. Oh no. Oh, let me guess. I'm dead?

Betty Denault was summoned to her Social Security office where the computer read like an epitaph.

Betty Denault: And she pointed on the screen up in the corner and it said, "DOD." And I said, "What does DOD mean?" And she said, "Date of death." And I said, "Well, how did you come up with this?" And she said, "All it takes is somebody to input on the computer the wrong numbers. And it just makes a big difference, of course."