JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The Missouri Secretary of State's Office is doing an about-face. The office, through spokeswoman Laura Swinford, says it "has already begun the process of redacting social security numbers from death certificates that are at least 50 years old and have been transferred to the State Archives as historic documents."
When Fox 4 News discovered last fall that old Missouri Death Certificates were available to all online, with SSN's clearly visible, our investigation revealed the state was alone. Most states limit access to such websites, and redact or hide critical information that might lead to identity theft.
"The social security number is the gateway, the keys to the kingdom," warned Overland Park Detective Byron Pierce, who specializes in financial crimes.
He was amazed when we showed him the website with open death certificates. One study by ID Analytics found that 2.5 million identities are stolen each year from the deceased. Detective Pierce says it's not uncommon for old SSN's to be used to create new fraudulent identities.
In spite of that concern, the Secretary of State's office essentially said its hands were tied by Missouri law.
Independence Democrat Senator Paul LeVota decided to untie those hands, pre-filing a bill for the current legislative session that would require social security numbers to be hidden. It turns out the bill isn't needed.
After seeing our story, Sen. LeVota worked with the Secretary of State's office, as did the banking industry and those who'd lost loved ones, to persuade it to change its mind. The decision still allows genealogists and researchers to access the documents for legitimate purposes, but will block the critical SSN's.
"The process is intricate and ongoing—we expect the first group of redacted documents to be available online within weeks," the office said in its statement.
Our investigation revealed the death certificates, 50 years and older, were probably too old to be cross-checked on a Social Security Administration Master Death list, adding to the danger of having the numbers exposed.
And for family members of the dearly departed, like Grace Bough, it's good news. Grace and her family weren't happy when we showed them death certificates of her sister and husband, who died in a boating accident in 1963. They're relieved now that the numbers will eventually be kept private.
"That social security number and that info was theirs, nobody else needs it," she told us last fall. "Let 'em have peace."