Barbara Carrig has spent most of February trying to prove she exists.
No, it’s not an exercise in philosophy. It’s been a guttwisting fight to get back into Uncle Sam’s memory bank after a Social Security glitch.
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"I feel that I have to suffer for somebody’s blunder," said Carrig, 54, who lives in Mesa and has three grown daughters. "They really treated me like I was committing some kind of crime."
Carrig and her husband, Dennis, first got wind of the problem Feb. 6 when a letter, addressed to her "estate," arrived from an East Coast lawyer demanding payment of a credit card bill. When she called, Carrig said, the lawyer was stunned to be speaking with the real, live Barbara Carrig. The lawyer said she and a deceased individual apparently shared the same Social Security number.
When she called the Social Security Administration, Carrig said, "They told us this number is assigned to a completely different person. They showed no record for me at all."
Carrig said she was told it’s possible for identical numbers to have been issued because "maybe somehow I got skipped or missed" when Social Security records were computerized in the 1970s not long after her card was issued.
"Up until 1972, the field offices like the one in Mesa assigned Social Security numbers themselves," said Mike Baksa, spokesman at Social Security headquarters in Baltimore. They would get cards from headquarters with preprinted numbers, then type in the person’s name when the number was issued. Until the 1970s, all these records were kept manually, but Baksa said, "For about 30 years now we’ve been on a more automated system." The transition, he said, "was not a smooth process."
Still, duplicate numbers are so rare that Baksa said the agency has no statistics on how often it happens. He said it’s odd the problem didn’t surface until now.
Social Security’s Web site says numbers are never reused, even after people die, because the current system has enough potential numbers to accommodate several more generations.
Social Security requires two forms of ID when applying for a card, so Carrig figured she had more than enough during her first visit to the local office to get a new number: Her driver’s license, birth certificate and tax records back to 1971. She also had an old ID that allowed her onto the former Williams Air Force Base in Mesa.
But instead of helping, Carrig said, "They accused me of stealing somebody’s Social Security number and using it." After four hours in various lines, she was told she needed more information, especially childhood records.
She spent all the next day on the phone looking for them. But her childhood doctor and dentist are dead. The grade school she attended in New Mexico no longer exists. Ditto for the high school she attended in Colorado. Finally she tracked down some school records that were being stored in Chicago, and copies of her parents’ wills, which mention her.
Armed with a baptismal certificate, a diploma, a college yearbook, parental death certificates and wills, the Carrigs endured another three hours at the Social Security office, with their 3-year-old grandson in tow, before being told her application would be processed.
Until her new card arrives, Carrig said, "They have no current record of my earnings. They have no record of me, period."