An API That Can Tell If You're Dead or Alive

Adam DuVander
Sep. 16 2009, 01:05AM EDT

Now you can use an API to find out once and for all whether you are among the living. The U.S. Social Security Administration maintains a "death index" to prevent fraud. CDYNE Corporation subscribes to the updates and has opened the index up with a fee-based API (details at our Death Index API profile).

deathindex1

The service is most useful incorporated into credit applications or other programs that need a quick check to rule out an applicant using the social security number (SSN) of a deceased person. To use the API, you send your license key and a SSN via one of two versions of SOAP, GET or POST. In return, if the SSN matches a record in the death index, you will receive the name and last known zip code of the deceased.

This may raise privacy concerns for some, as a name paired with a SSN is more useful than one alone. However, there are no records of living individuals in the death index, so only the privacy of the departed are at risk. It should be noted that anyone can get their hands on the full index for as little as $1,800.

The approach of making these previously secret identifiers public seems to be similar to open source software, where worries about exposing vulnerabilities are superceded by the upside of a community to fix them. In this case, by making known the names and SSN of those who have died, the government makes it possible for companies to stop one type of fraud early in the process. However, as with users who don't upgrade to fix their software installation, companies that don't check the death index are more vulnerable.

CDYNE's service makes the index easily available and relatively affordable ($25 per month, plus a few cents per lookup). It recommends using the service not only for stopping fraud, but to avoid telemarketing to the dead and for collections companies to know when to file estate claims.

It's easy to see CDYNE as taking advantage by reselling data that anyone can get. However, the company makes it significantly more affordable for small businesses, who only need a few lookups. Also, by making the index available as an API, it's much easier to integrate a SSN search into existing applications, whether they be for web, desktop or even mobile.

We are bound to continue to see services like this, bringing data as-needed. In many cases the APIs will cost money, because the services will be providing tremendous value.

Hat tip:
Mark O'Neill

Adam DuVander -- Adam heads developer relations at Orchestrate, a database-as-a-service company. He's spent many years analyzing APIs and developer tools. Previously he worked at SendGrid, edited ProgrammableWeb and wrote for Wired and Webmonkey. Adam is also the author of mapping API cookbook Map Scripting 101.

Comments

Comments(7)

For each fraud prevention service, I see the potential for use in fraud. Identity thieves use obituaries to create identities. Creating a list of dead people and their SSN's might be great for those who use those service, but for those who do not, standard disclaimer applies: beware anyone giving you a SSN.

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