Tag Archives: mocavo

Ordering a SS-5 Social Security Application

Recently I was asked about ordering a copy of an ancestor’s Social Security application. The application, called an SS-5 Form, is usually used for genealogy to get the names of the applicant’s parents. If you don’t know the birth date of a relative, it can also be used for that purpose, although that information is available in the public SSDI databases (and parents names are not).

The SSDI

The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) is a database of deaths recorded by the Social Security Administration. It’s official name is actually the Death Master File (DMF). When published online for genealogy purposes it is referred to as the SSDI. According to FamilySearch, the SSDI includes an increasing percentage of recorded deaths as time goes on from 1962 (when the index started):

The index includes about 50 percent of deceased persons from 1962 to 1971 and about 85 percent of the deceased persons from 1972 to 2005. It also includes a few deaths from 1937 to 1961.

That said, the database itself shows something a bit different. If you search for all deaths in the database from 1937 to 1961, there are 740,152 results. That’s a bit more than ‘a few’. What’s going on here? Even weirder, if you search for records before 1937 (when SS started) there are also records (a bit over 2500). Something is obviously wrong with these records. Keep these imperfections in mind when using the data. If you’re wondering why the percentage increases, it’s because not every working person was registered in the early days of the system. As time went on, more people participated in social security, and thus more people are also recorded in the SSDI.

So assuming your relative is among those recorded in the SSDI, how do you find their record, and assuming you find it, how do you get the record? One thing first…

Restrictions on Usage

You might have read that congress has criticized the online publication of social security numbers and accused online companies that do so of making identity theft easier. I have argued in the past that in fact that is backwards, but putting that aside, some online services have put restrictions on access to  SSDI data, such as not showing anyone who died in the past 10 years, etc. Recently a law was passed making it impossible to order SS-5 Forms for anyone who died in the previous 3 years. The law also effects the publication of new deaths to the SSDI, but won’t kick in until March (see this article at the Legal Genealogist for more information on that).

Whether 3 or 10 years, however, that doesn’t affect genealogists at all due to another government policy change. Back in 2011, the Social Security administration changed the access rules, where before you could order a complete SS-5 form for any deceased person born more than 70 years ago, they increased it to anyone born more than 100 years ago. Additionally, if the death of the application cannot be proved, then full records are not available for 120 years after the applicant’s birth.

So it’s currently January 8, 2014. That means if the person is known to be dead (i.e. you have a death certificate, or their death is recorded in the SSDI) then they need to have been born before January 8, 1914 if you’re going to be able to get a full record that shows the applicant’s parent’s names. If they don’t show up in the SSDI and you don’t have a record of their death (but you do have a social security number), then they have to have been born before January 8, 1894 if you want to get the applicant’s parents names.

Don’t Order Records That Won’t Help

Keep in mind one important thing. If the person was born more recently than 100 years ago, you can still order a copy of the SS-5. The Social Security Administration will happily take your money and send you a copy of the record, however, they will block out the names of the parents in the copy they send you (making the record mostly useless for genealogical purposes).

Searching the SSDI

To find a person’s social security number (and at the same time confirm that they are deceased according the Social Security Administration) you can search the SSDI on several sites. One good site is FamilySearch’s SSDI search page. Another public search page is Mocavo’s SSDI Search page. I will say that I believe FamilySearch’s to be the most up-to-date database, and they also post what date the database was updated – as of today it was updated with data up to November 30, 2013 – less than two months ago. Indeed my grandfather who passed away in September is listed in the FamilySearch database, but not in the Mocavo one.

Ordering Records

So let’s say the relative you’re researching was born more than a hundred years ago. You find their Social Security number, either through the SSDI or through other means. How do you order a record? Well that’s actually easy. You just go to the Request for Deceased Individual’s Social Security Record page, pay your $27 and order the record.

SS-5 Form Online Ordering
Ordering an SS-5 Form Online

Interestingly for two dollars more you can order the record even without the Social Security number. This is odd because searching for the record without the number would seem much more difficult and more costly than $2.

A Final Thought on the Restrictions

As I mentioned, my grandfather passed away in September. If I wanted to order his SS-5 form, according to the 2011 regulations I wouldn’t be able to order his un-redacted SS-5 form until he would have been 100, which in his case is not too far away – he was 98 – so July 2015. However, because of the new law recently passed, I can’t order the SS-5 at all until 3 years have passed, so September 2016. An extra year and a bit. In general, however, the restriction is likely to be on the 100-year regulation.

Everyone now needs to wait 3 years on ordering an SS-5 now, but if a relative passed away at the age of 80, you’d have to wait 20 years before you could get the un-redacted SS-5 form with the name of the relative’s parents on it. If your relative died before 2011 and you had ordered the records before the regulatory change then, you could have ordered the same SS-5 Form immediately, and received it un-redacted (since the relative was over 70).

New Social Security Death Index (SSDI) Search

I previously wrote about how many genealogy sites have been removing or restricting access to parts or even the entire Social Security Death Index (SSDI), due to pressure from lawmakers who have tried to make it seem like access to the SSDI was contributing to identity theft. I won’t go over that again, but you can read my earlier post Changes in Access to the SSDI and Vital Records.

One company, Mocavo, seems to be bucking the trend of most of the genealogy companies out there to restrict access to the SSDI, and has actually introduced a very nice new search engine for the SSDI, which seems to include all the information in the database, including social security numbers. In order to see the results, you need to sign up for a free account on Mocavo if you haven’t already. I suspect launching this SSDI search engine is largely a way to bring in users to their site. The search results also allow you to add comments, something I haven’t seen before on SSDI databases. How this will be used will be interesting.

I’m not a regular user of Mocavo, but it seems that this is the first actual database they’ve added to their site, and thus this comment feature is also new. With their search engine, they have the ability to ‘follow’ a page, but this is the first time I’ve seen the ability to comment. I don’t know if you are notified of someone else’s comments on the same record, or if you have to go back and check regularly. I also don’t see a way to send messages to other users (such as if someone commented that the person in the record was their great-grandmother, and they have a picture of her) but perhaps this is coming. If you are notified of other comments, then it might not matter too much, although without private messaging people would have to post their e-mail addresses publicly to take a conversation further, which is not ideal. As this is a brand new feature, however, I’m sure they’re working on something.

Some other features of Mocavo are also interesting, such as being able to mark a search result as already read, and being able to say that a specific result is about the person you were searching for, maybe close, not who you are looking for, or is a broken link. Mocavo presumably uses this data to improve its search results.

As I tell people who ask me about it, we don’t know if lawmakers will decide to restrict access to the SSDI in the future. I always suggest going through one’s family records and searching through the SSDI for anyone likely to have had a social security number and copying down everything into your personal database. If in the future access is removed, you may not be able to get the information later. Information that can be very helpful from the SSDI records includes birth date (take with a grain of salt), death date (more likely to be accurate),  what state their social security number was issued in, the person’s last residence, and where their last benefit was sent (which may be different from last residence and indicate where a spouse moved). So if you haven’t done so already, take a look at your family tree, figure out who is likely to have had a social security number (someone who was working from the late 1930s on) and search through Mocavo’s search engine, or one of the others available online (see my older article about that).

Introducing B&F Enhanced Genealogy Search

So it’s been two weeks since I last posted, and that’s because I’ve been busy on a new project. When Mocavo, a search engine dedicated to genealogy, launched a couple of weeks ago, I was inspired to figure out exactly how they were returning the results they were returning, and how one can create topic-specific search engines.

It was not clear to me exactly how Mocavo collected its results – if for example it uses results from another search engine, and just releases the results that match a pre-set list of genealogy-oriented web sites, or if Mocavo is indeed operating its own search ‘spider’ to crawl the web and collect its own results. It seemed clear that while Mocavo did find good results within a number of major genealogy web sites, it didn’t appear to find results on many minor sites, or on major general web sites that might have small genealogy sections. For example, if someone posted a web page on their family on their own web site, or started a Yahoo Group to discuss a particular town or surname (such as described in my earlier post on mailing lists), it did not seem to appear on Mocavo. I don’t know what algorithm Mocavo uses, but I’m guessing it can’t currently find particular sites within larger general websites like Yahoo, so it ignores Yahoo altogether (to eliminate the chance of false positives).

Not knowing anything about how Mocavo put together their site, I decided to see what I could put together myself. Using tools provided by Google (I suspect Mocavo uses the same tools, just their paid versions that allow them much greater customization) I worked over the past couple of weeks to put together my own genealogy search engine. It is a bit more inclusive in how it determines which sites to search than Mocavo. It is thus more likely to find small genealogy sites, but also more likely to find some less-than-relevant results. That’s a compromise I’ve struck, which I think returns many interesting results than you might not find on Mocavo. Of course, Mocavo has the advantage of being a real company with employees who get paid to update the search results, so they can improve their results over time. As this is not my full-time job, I don’t have that luxury. Don’t think, however, that I’m trying to compete with Mocavo. This is just my own attempt at creating a useful search tool for genealogists, inspired by Mocavo.

Unfortunately one of the downsides of Google’s free search tools is ads. I can’t stop the ads from showing up unless I’m willing to pay Google for that privilege. I don’t know why Google shows ads more aggressively on custom search engines like this one then they do on their own search engine, but they do. I’m sorry about that, but there isn’t anything I can do about it.

When looking through the tools available to me, I tried to figure out how I could improve the results for genealogists. I came up with an interesting idea, but Google restricts how useful it can be. Basically when towns have undergone name changes or have different names in different languages, and a record shows up under a name of a town that is different than the version of the name you are searching, you will not get results. Google will actually help here with major cities, so for example if you search for Wien it knows to search for Vienna, but it does not know every version of every town one might be searching for, nor frankly should it as this technique can actually reduce the usefulness of search results when alternate names overlap. In any event, Google allows you to define synonyms for search terms, but limits the amount you can do.

As I was limited, I had to choose a small area to try this technique out on, and I chose the Galicia region of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is a particularly good region to choose, as it has been controlled by many different countries over time, had many different languages spoken, and most towns have many names. It’s also small enough of a region that it fits within the limits of what Google allows me to do. Part of the problem is that Google only allows uni-directional synonyms, which means you need to know which town name to search or the synonyms won’t kick in. To use a set of names that was easily definable, I’ve chosen to use the names at the top of the Locality Pages from the JewishGen Community Database for the given towns. Basically, whichever name appears at the top of a Locality Page for the given town is the one you should use – except don’t use accent marks or apostrophes in the name. You should use dashes if they are in the name. Obviously it must be a town that was part of Galicia. While this will only help people who are searching with one of the hundreds of Galician towns in their search query, if you are not searching with one of these town names, the search engine will still work well to help you find results among the many sites it does search.

I am open to all feedback on this search engine, and welcome feedback in the comments. Please leave comments on the search page itself, and not on this post, as this post is just an introduction and in the future people will just go straight to the search page.

Without further ado, I introduce B&F Enhanced Genealogy Search.