PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Like most Americans, Clark Harr of Latrobe has been paying into social security for his adult life, so when he went to his local social security office in Greensburg to file for benefits, it came as a shock.
"When I went to apply, I found out I was deceased," Harr told KDKA money editor Jon Delano.
Deceased, really? So what happened.
Delano: "They look your social security number up?"
Delano: "And they put that social security number in that computer?"
Delano: "And your name pops up?"
Harr: "As deceased."
Delano: "As dead?"
Delano: "And you're obviously not dead. You're right there in the office?
Delano: "What was their explanation?"
Harr: "They couldn't give me one. Somebody hit a button, and that's all it took."
Turns out some 14,000 people are accidentally deleted from the social security system every year, and it creates havoc for the innocent victims of a government agency that is slow to correct its errors.
Harr: "No, nobody ever sympathetic about it."
Delano: "Nobody said I'm sorry?"
Delano: "Nobody said, we want to try to help you?"
Harr: "They told me they couldn't help me. That's the words I got. 'We can't help you.'"
Harr felt abandoned by a country he had served in the military, says his wife Patty.
"He felt devastated," said Mrs. Harr. "He felt like he didn't belong here in the United States. He felt worthless. He felt like he didn't exist."
It's called key-stroke error, says Professor Steve Weisman of Bentley University, and it's hard to reverse.
"Where it's so easy with just a slip of the finger to kill someone, it's very difficult to bring someone back to life," says Weisman. "It can be very, very frustrating."
And the government's mistake has consequences.
"Perhaps you're going for a car loan and when they go to access your credit report, you're dead," adds Weisman, "or to get a mortgage, and you're dead. Or to get a job and they've checked your credit report, and 'you've given us a phony social security number' -- you're dead."
The Harrs went to attorney Brian Bronson, who with the help of Congressman Tim Murphy's office, got Harr his benefits, but they're still fighting to get back his full social security number.
"We were lucky after running through five or six people to get to somebody that cared -- care I think is a different term -- somebody who wanted to do the right thing is the right words," notes Bronson. "But that took somebody in the government to override something a computer was telling them."
"They need to get their computer program fixed, if that's the problem," says Patty Harr. "A simple delete on that key -- then they need to get that fixed, so once it goes in that bucket, someone can get in there and get it back out."
That should be easy, but apparently it's not with social security.
With several million claims a year, 14,000 deleted numbers is small, but if you're the victim that doesn't matter.
Best advice to everyone, double-check -- go online and create an account with social security -- to make sure long before you or a loved one apply for benefits that your social security number is alive and well -- and yours.
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