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An Object Lesson in Incompetence at the Social Security Administration

Last updated: $Date: 2011/08/08 19:48:38 $ GMT. Click here for the latest news.

The story in brief

The bug

I live in Brighton, Massachusetts, whose ZIP code is 02135. Brighton is part of Boston. This means that “Brighton, MA  02135” and “Boston, MA  02135” are both legitimate ways to write my address.

There is a street in Boston proper with the same name as the street on which I live. The ZIP code of that street is 02109. The house numbers on that street overlap the house numbers on the street on which I live. It is rare for duplicate street names with overlapping numbers to occur in the same city, but it does happen, most frequently when one of the duplicate streets was previously part of a previously independent town which was annexed, as is the case with Brighton.

If you go to the U.S. Postal service ZIP Code Lookup page and enter my address with “Brighton, MA  02135”, it will return my correct ZIP code. If you enter my address with “Boston, MA  02135”, it will again return my correct ZIP code. If, however, you enter my address with “Boston, MA” without the ZIP code, you'll get back 02109. The software has to pick which of two valid ZIP codes to return, and it picks that one because it's a primary match for “Boston, MA” and only a secondary match for “Brighton, MA”.

To avoid replacing correct ZIP codes with incorrect ones in cases like this, any software which standardizes addresses must include the ZIP code provided by the addressee when calling the address standardization API. See page 20 of the U.S. Postal Service Address Matching System Application Program Interface User Guide 2004, which shows that the API includes a place for the ZIP code, and page 23, which shows an example in which the ZIP code is clearly included in the input.

Discarding the ZIP code and providing only the city and state to the API is guaranteed to cause incorrect results in some cases, and yet that is exactly what the SSA's software does. [August 12, 2005: Maybe not. See below.]

The paper trail

My youngest child was born in February 2005. As I've done for all my children, I applied for a social security number (SSN) at the hospital after the birth. The hospital transmitted the vital statistics about the birth to the Massachusetts registry of births, specifying “Boston, MA  02135” in my address. The registry transmitted the vital statistics and request for an SSN to the SSA. The SSA issued an SSN and mailed out a card.

When the card had not arrived two months after the birth, I sent the following letter to the SSA:

XX Xxxxxx Street
Brighton, MA  02135-XXXX

April 4, 2005


Social Security Administration
Office of Public Inquiries
Windsor Park Building
6401 Security Boulevard
Baltimore, MD  21235-6401

To whom it may concern:

This letter concerns three issues; please take care to read and address all of them.

  1. My daughter, Xxxxxxxxx Xxxx Kamens, was born at Caritas St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Brighton, Massachusetts on February X, 2005. We requested a social security number at the hospital. Her social security card never arrived. Please send us a replacement.
  2. I called you at 800-772-1213. Your automated system informed me that your call volume was too high and then hung up on me. This is simply unacceptable. When people call you during regular business hours, you need to be able to serve them.
  3. My wife and I have four children, all of whom were born in Boston. For all four children, we requested social security numbers at the hospital. For the last three, their cards never arrived in the mail and we had to request a replacement. Let me emphasize this point: This is the third child in a row for whom we've had to request a replacement card because the first one never arrived.

When I complained to the SSA about this the last two times it happened, you blew me off by telling me that your records indicated that the cards had been mailed and you simply couldn't explain why they never arrived. Surely now that it has happened three times in a row, you can't deny that there's a problem that needs to be investigated?

Is there anyone in your organization who will take this letter seriously? Is there anyone in your organization who thinks that it's a problem when a system which is supposed to work doesn't? Is there anyone in your organization who actually cares about fixing things that are broken?

I'm going to tell you something which may explain why this has happened. Mind you, I don't know if this is in fact what happened, but at least it's something for you to look into. And if it turns out that this is not what happened, then you still need to figure out what did happen.

My family lives at XX Xxxxxx Street in Brighton, Massachusetts. Brighton is a neighborhood of Boston, so people sometimes substitute “Boston” for “Brighton” in our mailing address. I've even encountered “smart” computer databases which automatically replace “Brighton” with “Boston”. Unfortunately, for our address, this is wrong. The ZIP Code for “XX Xxxxxx St., Brighton, MA” is “02135-XXXX”. In contrast, the ZIP Code for “XX Xxxxxx St., Boston, MA” is “02109-XXXX”. These are two different addresses that are miles apart. For most addresses in Brighton, it's OK to substitute “Boston”, but since there's also a Xxxxxx Street in Boston proper, it's not OK for our address.

I suspect that somewhere in the chain of people and computers between when we applied for our children's social security numbers and when their cards were mailed, some person or computer decided to replace “Brighton” with “Boston” in our address. Then, whoever did that, or perhaps someone or something else, changed our ZIP Code to match the new city name, thus resulting in a mailing address guaranteed to go to the wrong place. Since social security cards can't be forwarded, the post office had no choice but to return the misaddressed cards to you, even though there are probably people at the 02109 post office who are aware of this common error and know how to correct it. Since you destroy social security cards which are returned to you without making any effort to determine why they were returned, you have allowed this continue to occur.

I expect a prompt response which acknowledges that there is a problem and makes it clear what steps you have taken to investigate and resolve it. I will no longer tolerate being brushed off by an uncaring bureaucracy. If I am not convinced quickly that you have taken my complaint seriously and done something about it, then I will send copies of this letter, along with copies of all the previous correspondence I have exchanged with you and various other government officials about this problem, to my state senator; my state representative; my US senators; my US representative; every member of the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies; and the consumer affairs reporters of all the local newspapers, television stations and news-oriented radio stations.

I look forward to your reply.

Sincerely,

Jonathan I. Kamens

It's unfortunate that I didn't make it clear in this letter that it is OK to use “Boston, MA” in my address as long as the ZIP code is preserved. I did make this clear in a subsequent letter, as you will see below, but that didn't help.

On April 29, a woman from the Boston SSA office called and left a message for me. I spoke to her on May 6, and she said she was looking into what happened to my children's cards and would let me know when she had more information. I spoke to her once or twice after that, but it appears that I didn't record details of those conversations. I recall that in our last conversation, she told me that I would have to file a form SS-5 to get a duplicate card for my daughter.

I subsequently received the following letter from the SSA main office in Baltimore, Maryland:

May 26, 2005

Mr. Jonathan I. Kamens
XX Xxxxxx Street
Brighton, Massachusetts  02135-XXXX

Dear Mr. Kamens:

This is in reply to your letter concerning the Social Security card you requested for your daughter, Xxxxxxxxx.

We regret the difficulties you have encountered with Xxxxxxxxx's Social Security card and the cards for your other children. The officials in our Boston Regional Office looked into the matter and inform us that your city was incorrectly identified as Boston rather than Brighton by Caritas-St. Elizabeth's Hospital. The address, as transmitted to us by the hospital through the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, was XX Xxxxxx Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02135. Our systems officials report that a computer program is used to identify and correct address problems, and this system changed your zip code to 02109-XXXX because XX Xxxxxx Street is a valid address in Boston and the city provided in the address given to us is assumed to be correct.

To obtain a replacement Social Security card for a child, it is necessary for the parent to complete a new application through a Social Security field office. We understand that the manager of our Boston office has discussed our procedures with you and has assisted you in requesting a replacement Social Security card for your daughter.

We regret also that your call was disconnected when you called our national toll-free number. Our telephone service officials inform us that they have over 7,000 representatives to answer the toll-free number. On high-volume days — the first week of each month and days after holidays — callers may receive a busy message when all of the representatives are assisting other clients. We advise callers who receive such a message to try to call again at a less busy time. The best times to call us are later in the week and month and during the latter part of the day.

Our teleservice officials continually look for ways to improve service. Later this year, they plan to test the use of advanced speech technology in an effort to enhance service. In addition, the use of Internet service is expanding to provide additional support to the national toll-free telephone service.

We apologize for the difficulty you experienced when you called our toll-free number and we hope that your future dealings with us will result in the high level of service that the public expects and deserves.

Sincerely,

Xxxxx Xxxxx
Associate Commissioner
Office of Public Inquiries

In response, I sent the following e-mail message:

From: Jonathan Kamens <jik@kamens.brookline.ma.us>
To: Xxxxx.Xxxxx@ssa.gov
Subject: Your letter to me dated May 26, 2005
Date: Tue, 31 May 2005 20:27:59 -0400

Dear Ms. Xxxxx,

Thank you for your letter to me dated May 26, 2005. I am grateful that you took the time to write to me. However, my concerns have not been fully satisfied, so I feel the need to respond.

First and foremost, it is unacceptable for you to tell me that I have to submit a form SS-5 to get a duplicate social security card when the first one was lost due to a flaw in your computer system. It was your mistake, so I expect you to do whatever it takes to make it right. I don't want to hear that it's not possible. I know for a fact that it is, because the last time this happened, when my third daughter was born, I was able to get a duplicate card mailed by calling on the phone, without ever submitting a form SS-5. It is simply unreasonable to expect me to send my identification documents through the mail, which I am unwilling to do for privacy and security reasons, or to take time off of work to travel downtown to submit the documents in person.

Second, your explanation of why three social security cards sent to my address were lost in a mail is perfectly believable, but it misses one very important point. The behavior of your computer system which changed my valid mailing address to an invalid one IS A BUG. You failed to acknowledge this, and you failed to indicate when it will be fixed so that the same problem does not occur to me or others in the future.

Our address that was transmitted to the Social Security Administration from St. Elizabeth's Hospital, “XX Xxxxxx St., Boston, MA 02135” IS A VALID ADDRESS for my house. You can confirm this by going to www.usps.gov, clicking on “Find a ZIP Code”, entering that address, and clicking “Submit”. Your computer system disregarded the valid ZIP code that was provided and replaced it with an invalid ZIP code. This is, quite simply, incorrect behavior. To avoid such errors, your address normalization software must first attempt to normalize each provided address WITH the provided ZIP code, and only if that normalization fails should it attempt to normalize the address without the ZIP code.

Do your “systems officials” understand that the behavior of your computer systme is incorrect? Are they going to fix it? When?

I look forward to your prompt response.

Sincerely,

  Jonathan Kamens

On June 16, when I hadn't yet received a response to this letter, I printed it out and mailed the hard copy to the SSA with a sticky note asking for a response.

On July 14, I sent a letter to my U.S. Representative, Michael Capuano, asking him to help me get this resolved. As of August 7, he had not responded, but this may be because he contacted the SSA and they told him it had been dealt with.

Also on July 14, another woman at the Boston SSA office left a message on my voice-mail. I returned her call on July 20. She informed me that my May 31 letter to the Baltimore office had been referred back to the Boston office for further action. We talked briefly, during which I explained once again both why the SSA's software was incorrect to discard the ZIP code that was provided to them and why I was unwilling to file a form SS-5 to get a duplicate card for my daughter. She and I agreed that there was nothing the Boston office could do to help me and that neither of us understood why the matter was referred back to that office. She said she'd pass that message back to the Baltimore office.

On July 22, another woman at the Boston SSA office called and spoke with me. I went around in circles with her several times, trying to make it clear to her why the behavior of the SSA addressing software was incorrect. I doubt I was successful, since she seemed unable to grasp even the simple idea that both “Boston, MA” and “Brighton, MA” are valid ways to write my address. I also explained yet again why I was unwilling to file a form SS-5. She said she would forward my concerns to the Baltimore office.

On August 5, I received the following letter from the Baltimore office (my comments are interposed in italics):

August 1, 2005

Mr. Jonathan Kamens
XX Xxxxxx Street
Brighton, Massachusetts  02135

Dear Mr. Kamens:

This is in reply to your letter regarding your request for a Social Security card for your daughter, Xxxxxxxxx.

The systems officials in our headquarters hve again carefully reviewed your remarks and inform us that the State of Massachusetts sent us the enumeration at birth file for your daughter on February 14, 2005, showing your mailing address as Boston, Massachusetts 02135-XXXX. [As noted above, this is a correct, valid address for my house.] We use a software program developed by the U.S. Postal Service to identify and correct address problems. [But they use it incorrectly.] That program changed the zip code to 02109-XXXX because XX Xxxxxx Street is a valid address in Boston and the assumption in the software package is that the user has provided the correct city in the address. [Yes, the software makes that assumption if the program calling it makes the mistake of not including the provided ZIP code in the address inquiry.]

As you requested, we checked www.usps.gov and entered XX Xxxxxx Street, Boston, Massachusetts. [I told them to enter the entire address, including the ZIP code. They made the same mistake using www.usps.gov that their software makes using the Address Matching System API. This proves nothing except their continued inability to understand the bug in their software.] The Web site provides the zip code as 02109-XXXX. If the address is entered as XX Xxxxxx Street, Brighton, Massachusetts, it shows the zip code as 02135-XXXX. Since the address was given to us as Boston, the U.S. Postal Service software used by the Social Security Administration corrected the zip code to 02109 since that is the correct zip code for that street address in Boston.

We previously notified you that you could obtain a replacement Social Security card for your daughter by completing an application through a Social Security field office. We understood that you had already completed such an application; however, this does not seem to have been correct.

On July 20, the assistent manager of our Boston field office spoke to you by telephone and explained that you would have to complete an application for a replacement card for your daughter. You stated that you did not wish to do and indicated that there should be an exception to this process which would allow us to send another card to you at your home address in Brighton.

On July 22, a policy specialized in our Boston Regional Office contacted you and reiterated that the address given to us through the enumeration at birth process was XX Xxxxxx Street in Boston rather than Brighton. She also found that the hospital from which the Social Security number request originated — Caritas St. Elizabeth's Hospital — was unable to resubmit the enumeration at birth information to replace your daughter's Social Security card using your correct city address. [I don't remember the woman I spoke to on July 22 saying anything at all about the idea that the hospital might be able to resubmit the SSN request. In any case, this is irrelevant. The hospital didn't do anything wrong. They shouldn't have to do more paperwork to correct the SSA's error.] We regret that there is no available mechanism or policy through which we could reissue your daughter's Social Security card without a new application from you. [The people claiming to be bound by a lack of “mechanism or policy” are the people who define and can change the SSA's policies. Also, note that they've never explained why this time they can't send me a new card without an application, but the last two times this happened, they were able to do so.]

If you have any further questions, I am sure that the representatives in our Boston field office will make every effort to assist you. The office is located in Room 148, First Floor, 10 Causeway Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02222, and the telephone number is telephone: 617-565-8903.

Sincerely,

Xxxxx Xxxxx
Associate Commissioner
Office of Public Inquiries

On August 7, I went digging through my old files to find out what city was specified on the “enumeration at birth” paperwork for my oldest daughter, whose social security card did arrive on time. Lo and behold, the hospital put “Boston” instead of “Brighton” on her forms as well. This implies that the bug in the SSA addressing software was introduced some time between mid-1998, when my oldest daughter was born, and mid-2000, when my second daughter was born.

On August 7, I wrote the first version of this page, put it up on the Web, posted links to it to various blogs, and submitted a link to it along with the text of the “story in brief” section above to the RISKS Digest. In my RISKS Digest submission, I asked for anyone who works or has connections at the SSA and who actually understands the bug I encountered to help me get the SSA to fix it.

On August 8, I sent letters about this problem, along with hard copy of this Web page, to my U.S. Senators (Edward Kennedy and John Kerry), my U.S. Representative (Michael E. Capuano), and all members of the House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies (Ralph Regula, Ernest J. Istook, Jr., Roger Wicker, Anne M. Northup, Randy Cunningham, Kay Granger, John E. Peterson, Don Sherwood, Dave Weldon, James T. Walsh, Dave Obey, Steny Hoyer, Nita M. Lowey, Rosa L. DeLauro, Jesse L. Jackson, Jr., Patrick J. Kennedy, and Lucille Roybal-Allard). The cover letters read:

				XX Xxxxxx Street
				Brighton, MA  02135-XXXX
				(XXX) XXX-XXXX
				jik@alum.mit.edu

				August 7, 2005


[addr]

Dear [salutation],

The Social Security Administration's bureaucracy has chewed me up and
spit me out.  See the attached for details.  Can you help me get the
SSA to acknowledge that they made a mistake, to acknowledge that
there's something they need to fix, and to send me a duplicate social
security card to replace the one that was lost because of their error?


				Thank you,



				Jonathan Kamens

On August 10, a submission from me about this problem was published in Volume 24: Issue 1 of the Risks Digest.

On August 10, a reader of the Risks Digest recommended that I contact the Social Security Administration's Inspector General. Here's the letter I sent:

XX Xxxxxx Street
Boston, MA  02135-XXXX

August 10, 2005

Patrick P. O'Carroll, Jr.
Inspector General
Social Security Administration
Office of Communications
Suite 300 Altmeyer Building
6401 Security Boulevard
Baltimore, MD  21235

Dear Mr. O'Carroll,

Enclosed is a copy of an article I've published on the Web about a bug I've discovered in the Social Security Administration's software for normalizing mailing addresses when mailing out Social Security cards. Because of this bug, the cards for my three youngest daughters, all born in Boston in the last five years, failed to arrive. The attached article explains the bug in detail, as well as my unsuccessful efforts to get anyone from the Social Security Administration to understand the bug or to replace my youngest daughter's lost card.

I hope you will understand the problem that I'm trying to get fixed, so that it does not continue to adversely affect me or other people in the future.

I hope you will agree that for the Social Security Administration should correct its own error by sending me a replacement card for my youngest daughter, rather than demanding that I fill out a form SS-5 to correct the Social Security Administration's error.

Please note that certain details were obscured in the enclosed article to protect my privacy and the privacy of employees of the Social Security Administration. These details, for you to use as you deem appropriate, are as follows:

[deleted]

I hope that you will be able to help me.

Sincerely,

Jonathan I. Kamens

On August 10, acting on a tip from a reader of the Risks Digest, I wrote about this problem to the “Politech” and “Interesting-People” mailing lists.

On August 12, acting on a recommendation from a reader of the Risks Digest, I've contacted the Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Washington Post and New York Times about this.

On August 12, I received confirmation of someone else's Social Security card being sent to the wrong ZIP code because of the address standardization bug. I therefore now have proof that there are other people besides me impacted by this problem. To protect the privacy of the other affected party, I'm not revealing any additional details here.

I've been searching the Web for related stories in blogs and such and adding a brief description of this problem along with a link to this page. I figure the wider I spread the message, the more likely it is that the problem will get fixed, so I'll probably continue to search and post about this as time permits.

On August 12, I received e-mail from a developer at a company that uses address quality software from a vendor that I shall call “ZipCo” (not their real name). He tested my address in ZipCo's software and found that it behaved the same way as the SSA's software. He contacted their support department about this, and he got back a convoluted explanation for why it was correct for their software to discard a correct ZIP code and replace it with an incorrect one. An excerpt from their answer:

The USPS has a large number of esoteric rules about which ZIP+4 to match when the address-city-state-ZIP inputs are incomplete or conflicting and ambiguous, and rules don't even exist for many cases, so you'll continue to see the logic evolve as CASS changes to include more of the above situations.

Now, perhaps I'm just a dumb consumer who's ignorant of the esoteric aspects of address standardization, but it seems to me that the canonical authority for how to correctly standardize a mailing address in the U.S. is the U.S. Postal Service. It therefore seems to me that any software which standardizes an address differently from the U.S. Postal Service is by definition incorrect. It also seems to me that any software which takes an address which would have yielded successful delivery and “standardizes” it into an address which causes unsuccessful delivery is also by definition incorrect. ZipCo's software, like the SSA's, fails on both counts, and thus it seems obvious to me that both the SSA's and ZipCo's software are broken.

Who knows, perhaps the SSA is using ZipCo's software, or some other third-party software package which has this bug embedded in it. If so, then the bug is not what I originally guessed, i.e., that the SSA is failing to provide the ZIP code to the address standardization API, but rather than the API is discarding the ZIP code. Even if that's the case, it's still the SSA's responsibility to acknowledge that the software package they're using is buggy and get the vendor to fix it or replace it with a different package that works properly.

August 12, 2005: I contacted the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse about this issue. I heard back from them the same day. They said they have a contact in the SSA's information/privacy office who they will contact about my problem. “It's reprehensible that SSA has not fixed the bug.”

August 12, 2005: The folks at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse pointed out that I was looking at the wrong House subcommittee. The subcommittee to which I sent letters is only responsible for SSA appropriations, not for general oversight of the SSA. The correct subcommittee is the Committee on Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security. I've now sent this article with a cover letter to its members (Jim McCrery, E. Clay Shaw Jr., Sam Johnson, J.D. Hayworth, Kenny C. Hulshof, Ron Lewis, Kevin Brady, Paul Ryan, Sander M. Levin, Earl Pomeroy, Xavier Becerra, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, and Richard E. Neal). The cover letters read:

				XX Xxxxxx Street
				Brighton, MA  02135-XXXX
				(XXX) XXX-XXXX
				jik@alum.mit.edu

				August 12, 2005


[addr]

Dear [salutation],

The Social Security Administration is sending social security cards to
incorrect addresses.  They admit that they're doing this, but refuse
to acknowledge that they need to fix it.  In this age of identity
theft, this is simply unacceptable.  For details, See the attached
article which I've published on the World Wide Web.

Can you help me get the SSA to stop sending social security cards to
incorrect addresses?  Can you help me get the SSA to send me a
replacement for my youngest daughter's card, which they acknowledge
they sent to the wrong address but refuse to replace?


				Thank you,



				Jonathan Kamens

August 13, 2005: The developer who told me that “ZipCo”'s address standardization software has the same bug as the SSA's (see above) tested my address in the software of three other address quality vendors, and they all do the right thing, i.e., preserved the ZIP code they were given rather than replacing it with an incorrect ZIP code.

August 17, 2005: Another data point.... I've been told there's a fourth address quality software package which does the right thing with my address.

November 16, 2005: I called the Washington office of Congressman, Michael Capuano, to find out why he hadn't responded to the letter I sent him in July. His office said that Social Security issues are usually handled by the district office, which is understandable since most Social Security issues don't have to do with bugs in the softwarew running at the SSA's national headquarters in Maryland. However, rather than trying to get into that over the phone, I decided to play along and contact the district office; if I can get the attention of someone there, I hope they'll bounce it back to the Washington office for further scrutiny.

I called the district office and left a voice-mail message for the staff member who, according to Capuano's Web site, handles Social Security issues. I got a call back shortly afterward from a different staff member. Of course, he knew nothing about my situation and offered no explanation for why a letter I sent in July hadn't been answered. That battle's really not worth fighting, so I instead explained the problem again in this memo which I sent to the fax number he provided:

				  MEMORANDUM

FROM:		Jonathan Kamens

TO:		XXX
		District Office
		Congressman Michael Capuano
		FAX: 617-621-8628

SUBJECT:	Social Security Administration (SSA) Problem

DATE:		November 16, 2005

XXX,

Here are the key facts of the problem I am having with the SSA:

* My daughter, XXX, was born February XXX, 2005 at Caritas St. Elizabeth's
  Hospital in Brighton.
* My wife and I applied for a Social Security number (SSN) at the hospital,
  through the state's enumeration at birth (EAB) program.
* We provided our correct mailing address in our application.
* The state provided our correct mailing address to the SSA.
* The SSA incorrectly changed our mailing address and mailed my daughter's
  Social Security Card (SSC) to the incorrect address.
* The incorrectly addressed SSC was returned to the SSA and shredded.
* This is the third time this has happened.  My wife and I have four children,
  and three of their SSCs have been lost in the mail.
* The first two times this happened, the SSA resent a duplicate card to the
  correct address when I contacted them about the problem.  This time, they
  refuse to resend a duplicate card unless I fill out a form SS-5.  This is
  unacceptable.
* The reason why the SSA has sent three of my children's SSCs to incorrect
  addresses is because there is a bug in the SSA's computer systems.  This bug
  in some cases changes correct mailing addresses to incorrect mailing
  addresses.
* The SSA refuses to acknowledge that their software is in error or indicate
  any plans to fix it.

I am trying to achieve the following:

* My daughter's SSC was mailed to the incorrect address because of an error by
  the SSA.  The SSA should fix their own error, i.e., they should resend a
  duplicate SSC to the correct address, rather than making me miss work and go
  downtown with all sorts of documents to prove that I'm entitled to a copy of
  the SSC which they've already acknowledged I'm entitled to.
* The SSA should acknowlege that their software is in error and fix it so that
  the problem which has affected my family three times does not continue to
  affect other people.

I have published all of the details about this situation on the Web at
http://www.mit.edu/people/jik/ssa-zip.html.  I've documented there my efforts
to get the situation resolved and my proof that the SSA's computer systems have
a bug.

If you need to discuss this further, please contact me at jik@alum.mit.edu,
XXX-XXX-XXXX, or my home address, XXX XXX Street, Brighton, MA  02135.

Thank you.

November 21, 2005: I got a letter today from Senator Edward Kennedy in response to mine. It reads:

November 8, 2005

Dear Mr. Kamens:

     Thank you for your recent correspondence to my office regarding your concerns with your children's social security cards. I know this is a matter of concern to you and I sincerely hope I can be of assistance.

     I have forwarded your correspondence to the Social Security Administration and asked that your case be given the support and consideration it merits. As soon as we receive a response we will be back in touch with you.

Sincerely,



Edward M. Kennedy

This does not seem particularly promising, but we'll see.

February 3, 2006: I received this useless letter from Senator Kennedy's office. Note that it's dated over two months before I actually received it.

November 28, 2005

Mr. Jonathan Kamens
XX Xxxxxx Street
Brighton, MA 02135-XXXX

Dear Mr. Kamens:

I have enclosed correspondence from the Social Security Administration. This is in response to an inquiry my office made on your behalf. I hope you will find the following correspondence helpful.

Please do not hesitate to contact my congressional aide, Axxxxx Dxxxxx, should you ahve any additional questions or concerns regarding your case. She can be reached in my Boston office at (617) 565-3170.

With best wishes.

Sincerely,


Edward M. Kennedy

The letter which Kennedy enclosed was as useless as all the previous ones from the SSA:

November 21, 2005

Senator Edward M. Kennedy
Attention: Axxxxx Dxxxxx
2400 John F. Kennedy Federal Building
Boston MA 02203

Dear Senator Kennedy:

This is in response to your letter to us concerning the social security cards for the children of Jonathan Kamens. As we have told Mr. Kamens several times in the past, he must file Social Security number applications (form SS-5) for his children in order to receive their cards.

We know and understand that there was a glitch in the enumeration at birth system. However, our instructions require that a new social security number application must be filed in order to obtain a card, even in the circumstance that Mr. Kamens describes.

Mr. Kamens can obtain copies of the application online at our website www.socialsecurity.gov.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any further questions.

Sincerely,


Jxxx L. Bxxxxxxxx
District Manager

I sent the following response the same day, i.e., February 3, 2006:

XX Xxxxxx Street
Brighton, MA 02135-XXXX

February 3, 2006

Ms. Axxxxx Dxxxxx
Aide to Senator Edward M. Kennedy
2400 John F. Kennedy Federal Building
Government Center
Boston, MA 02203

Dear Ms. Dxxxxx,

I would like an appointment to meet with Senator Kennedy the next time he is in Boston. I will call you on February 9 to discuss this further.

As a Senator's Aide and a resident of Boston, you are no doubt familiar with the Edwards and Stone musical 1776. As I have fought for the last six months to compel the Social Security Administration to own up to making a mistake and fix it, I find myself thinking of John Adams' quite frequently: “Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Does anybody see what I see?”

The facts of the matter are quite simple. There is a bug in the SSA's computer systems which caused my fourth daughter's Social Security Card to be mailed to the wrong address when she was born last year. This same bug caused my second and third daughters' Cards to be mailed to the wrong address in 2000 and 2002. There is no doubt that this bug has caused other Cards to be mailed to the wrong address and will cause more Cards to be mailed to the wrong address in the future.

The SSA refuses to admit that their computer systems have a bug, let alone that they intend to fix it. The SSA refuses to send me a replacement card for my daughter unless I either miss work to go downtown to apply for it or send original identification documents to them in the mail, which I am unwilling to do due to security concerns. They continue to insist that their rules “require” that I submit an application for a replacement card, despite the facts that (a) they have acknowledged that they sent the card to the wrong address and (b) the last two times this happened, they sent a replacement card without requiring me to file an application.

Ms. Dxxxxx, I am not a kook. I'm a graduate of MIT and a professional software engineer with almost 20 years of experience in the fields of computer security, large computer systems, and total quality management.

What I am, however, is someone who takes it very personally when I am treated like a nobody by the government whose very reason for being is to serve its citizens. I am a bit of a “Don Quixote,” fighting injustice of this sort against all odds. If I weren't, I would have capitulated to the SSA's demands long before now, filed an application for a replacement card, and moved on with my life. But I haven't done that, because I believe that since I know that this problem is harming people besides me, I have a moral and ethical obligation to do everything in my power to put a stop to it.

I have written to Senators. I have written to Representatives. I have written to the SSA. I have written to the SSA's Inspector General. I have spoken to several representatives of the SSA on the telephone. Despite all this effort, the SSA continues to stonewall, and I have yet to find a single person in the Federal government willing to join me in putting a foot down and saying, “Enough. The government should not treat people this way. It is wrong, and it must stop.”

Soon, I must file my 2005 Federal income tax return, and I cannot do so unless I have my daughter's Social Security Number. I've therefore run out of time — I can no longer stand on principle and refuse the SSA's demand that I file an application for a replacement Card; do you think I want to get myself into a battle with the IRS, the second largest government bureaucracy, while I'm still in the process of fighting a battle with the largest one?

However, although I must capitulate to the SSA's demands for myself, I will not give up the fight to prevent this problem from continuing to harm other people in the future. My letters have been ineffective. My telephone calls have been ineffective. All that's left, therefore, is for me to meet in person with people who might just be able to make a difference, to see if I can succeed with face-to-face meetings at what I have failed to succeed at with letters and telephone calls.

As I said above, I will call you on February 9 to schedule a meeting with Senator Kennedy. As a constituent who has voted for him in every election in which he has run since I came to Boston in 1987, I think I am entitled to discuss my problem with him in person.

Sincerely,


Jonathan I. Kamens

I called February 9, 2006 and left a message. It was not returned. I called again February 17, 2006 and left another message. I received a return message on February 22, 2006, which I did not have time to return until March 6, 2006. I left a message on that date, and it was never returned.

Around April 8, 2006: I received a letter from the office of the Inspector General of the Social Security Administration. This response arrived almost eight months after I wrote to this office. Oddly, the date at the top was stamped on rather than typed, and the meter mark on the envelope indicates that the letter was mailed April 7, 16 days after the date stamped on it. The letter reads:

MAR 22 2006

Mr. Jonathan Kamens
XX Xxxxxx Street
Boston, MA 02135—XXXX

Dear Mr. Kamens:

This is in response to your letter to the Inspector General in which you indicate you have discovered a problem in the Social Security Administration's software programs for mailing Social Security cards.

Thank you for your interest and concern in the ongoing operations of the SSA. I am forwarding your letter to the SSA's Office of Systems, which is responsible for developing and maintaining the software systems that support SSA's enumeration processes, as well as to the Audit Division within the Office of the Inspector General which is responsible for improving SSA's operations by conducting independent and objective audits, evaluations, and investigations.

Sincerely.


Jxxxxxxx L. Lxxxxx
Deputy Chief Counsel for External Relations

April 6, 2006: Finally conceding the futility of waiting for the SSA to do the right thing, I mailed form SS-5 and the necessary identification documents (originals, mind you) via registered mail ($8.53 down the tube) to the SSA's Boston office to get a card for my daughter. Yes, I gave in *sigh*.

April 20, 2006: Form SS-5 says that applicants will receive their cards in “10 to 14 days.” Well, 14 days after I sent in my application, I received not my daughter's card, but rather a letter informing me that I would receive her card “in about 2 weeks.” It apparently took them two weeks to process an application which they presumably would have processed immediately if I'd missed work to deliver it in person rather than mailing it. Gotta love it.

April 25, 2006: I suppose it goes without saying by now that Capuano's office never got back to me.

April 25, 2006: Some interesting statistics... This page has been viewed at least 1,309 times since I started tracking. Of those hits, at least 64 have come from within the Social Security Administration. Most of those occurred in the two weeks after I publicized this page in August 2005, but 3 have occurred since March 22, when the Inspector General's office wrote to me. There have also been hits from various other government agencies, including NASA, NIST, the U.S. Department of Justice, the IRS, the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Treasury.

April 25, 2006: It has been over eight months since “ZipCo” was informed that they were incorrectly canonicalizing my address, and they're still doing it wrong. They've had more than enough time to fix it; I think it's time to say who they are: Semaphore Corporation. I've sent the following letter about them to the Office of the Inspector General of the United States Postal Service:

					XX Xxxxxx St.
					Boston, MA  02135-XXXX

					April 25, 2006


United States Postal Service
Office of Inspector General
1735 North Lynn Street
Tenth Floor
Arlington, VA  22209-2020

To whom it may concern:

I am writing to report a CASS-certified software vendor whose software
canonicalizes my mailing address and others like it incorrectly, turning
correct mailing addresses into incorrect ones.  This problem was reported to
the software vendor in August 2005, and yet it remains in their product over
eight months later.

If you enter my address, exactly as shown above, into the ZIP Code Lookup
application at www.usps.com, it will remain as shown after canonicalization.
If, on the other hand, you enter the same address into Semaphore Corporation's
ZIP Code Lookup application, accessible at
http://www.semaphorecorp.com/cgi/form.html, it will remove my correct ZIP+4 and
replace it with the incorrect ZIP+4 02109-XXXX.

Oddly enough, if you enter "XX Xxxxxx Street" into Semaphore's software rather
than "XX Xxxxxx St.", it will preserve the correct ZIP+4, but replace "Boston"
with "Brighton".  Although this results in a correct mailing address, I'm not
sure it's the correct behavior according to the CASS standard, since I believe
that valid city names are supposed to be preserved when canonicalizing, and
both "Boston" and "Brighton" are valid in my mailing address.

These problems arise because Brighton is a neighborhood of Boston, and hence
"Boston, MA" is a valid mailing address for me, but in addition to the "XX
Xxxxxx Street" in Brighton, there is also a "XX Xxxxxx Street" in Boston
proper.  There are other streets in Brighton / Boston with this problem, e.g.,
Xxxxx Street, and I imagine that there are other streets with this problem in
cities throughout the country.  It is simply unacceptable that this bug remains
in Semaphore Corporation's software eight months after it was reported to them.

If your office is not responsible for overseeing the certification of CASS
software vendors, please forward this letter to whoever is.


					Sincerely,




					Jonathan Kamens

I also sent mail to Semaphore and suggested that they might want to take a look at this page.

April 25, 2006: I received my daughter's Social Security card in the mail today. And so the saga presumably ends, since it seems unlikely that the SSA's or the USPS's Inspector General is going to do anything about the problem.

May 12, 2006: I received a letter from the USPS Inspector General's office informing me that my complaint was outside their jurisdiction and they were forwarding it to the Consumer Advocate's office.

May 17, 2006: I received a letter from the USPS Consumer Affairs office informing me, “This office is now working with senior Postal officials to investigate this matter on your behalf. We ask for your patience while this matter is being resolved.”

August 8, 2006: I checked Semaphore's address search application on their Web site, and they're still canonicalizing my address wrong.

January 10, 2007: Semaphore's still getting my address wrong.

November 6, 2007: My fifth child was just born. I had a conversation with the birth registrar at the hospital about the problem I've had with lost social security cards. She told me that she is aware of the problem, she knows first-hand of many people which have been impacted by it, and she has had numerous conversations with employees of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Social Security Administration trying to get something done about it, to no avail. At least she provided me with a workaround which I hope will work — I specified a separate mailing address with “Brighton” instead of “Boston”, and hopefully, the SSA will mail my son's card to that address.

January 14, 2008: Someone on the Web forwarded me this Social Security Administration telephone directory. Perhaps it will be useful to others trying to get through the SSA bureaucracy (as for me, I'm no longer bothering to try). It's also on-line here at the Web site of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants' Representatives, but I don't know how long it'll last there, because I'm not sure they actually intended for it to be publicly accessible.

August 4, 2011: Well over five years after Semaphore was first contacted about the fact that their software was canonicalizing my address wrong and differently from everyone else in the world (including the USPS), they sent me a nonsensical email message, and I engaged in an more even more nonsensical email conversation with them, in which they continued to insist that their software is correct and everyone else, including the USPS, is wrong. (To fully understand just how ludicrous this is, you need to remember that the USPS makes the rules for address canonicalization which Semaphore claims to be following.) See my blog for more on this.


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