Since 2018, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has been relying on information from a data broker to determine whether Supplemental Security Income (SSI) applicants and recipients own unreported real property. Accurint for Government, a product of LexisNexis, uses “name only” matches as the basis for its searches, the results of which are often inaccurate, according to a report by the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) and Justice in Aging entitled Mismatched and Mistaken: How the Use of an Inaccurate Private Database Results in SSI Recipients Unjustly Losing Benefits.
SSI is a means tested program. Applicants must demonstrate they do not have income over SSI’s strict limits and prove they do own any non-exempt resources. A home in which the SSI recipient resides is considered exempt from the resource limits. But non-home real property (NHRP) that does not serve as an applicant’s or recipient’s principal residence is counted as a resource that can make an individual ineligible for SSI. And this is where Accurint comes into the picture. SSA uses data purchased from Accurint to determine whether beneficiaries have previously undisclosed ownership interest in NHRP. But as indicated in the Justice in Aging and NCLC report, the data is shockingly lax, largely because it is based on matches of only first and last names without further identifying detail. As a result, people of color and immigrant communities are disproportionately impacted. Name only matches are especially inaccurate in these populations, likely because “clustering” of common surnames is more common among ethnic minorities than among non-Hispanic and white populations.
According to SSA, it does not rely on the Accurint data base to suspend SSI benefits without getting more information from the individual. The SSA employee is supposed to review the Accurint information with the SSI recipient prior to taking action. And if the recipient does not agree with the information, the SSA employee should investigate further, including assisting the SSI applicant or recipient with documenting ownership, its market value, or encumbrances. But the report posits that in fact SSA employees too often suspend benefits on the Accurint report and nothing more. The SSI beneficiary is then faced with proving a negative – that they do not own the property in question. The report provides several compelling examples of SSI recipients whose SSI benefits were suspended based on the inaccurate Accurint data. Without the assistance of dedicated advocates, they were unable to prove they did not own the property in question.
The report raises other significant issues with Accurint. Lexis appears to be evading the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) by claiming Accurint is not a consumer report and thus not bound by the FCRA’s requirements to adhere to certain standards of accuracy. And as a result, SSA avoids the FCRA requirements to provide notice to consumers before taking any adverse action based on the report. The report reviews the caselaw that has developed around this issue with Accurint and other data services.
In the report, Justice in Aging and the NCLC also examine SSA’s failure to provide due process protections to recipients. Examples collected in preparing the report indicate SSA offices are sometimes failing to notify SSI recipients of their appeal rights or failing to provide continuing benefits through reconsideration pending review of a timely appeal. And the notices recipients receive often fail to identify the property in issue, only giving vague information about why benefits are to be suspended.
The report makes several recommendations, including encouraging SSA to stop using Accurint until stricter matching criteria are in place. It should also ensure that local offices conduct independent investigations before taking adverse action. Congratulations to all our colleagues who helped make this important report possible.