Government Incompetence and Genealogists

Have you ever hit a wall in your genealogy research where the only option to move forward was to get your hands on some sort of government document? That’s what happened to me recently. I needed one ancestor’s parents’ names. And the only way to get them would be to get a copy of her application for a Social Security number (SS-5 form).

This document is available to genealogists either by mailing a form or applying for it online. They charge a fee for this (understandable) which varies depending on whether you want an actual copy or just a computer printout of the information, and whether or not you want an actual copy certified.

I recently ordered two of these — one certified copy ($37) and one uncertified computer printout for another ancestor ($16). I used the online form to apply for both, and I knew the Social Security number for each individual (they charge more if you don’t). So basically I paid $53 for these two documents. I’ve done this before and I generally receive them within a month.

It didn’t go like that this time. Two months went by. I then called the Social Security Administration from the toll-free number on their website. Here’s what happened:

  1. The individual with the national SSA office told me they couldn’t help me — that it would have been sent to the local area for processing. They gave me the number for the supposedly relevant Brooklyn, NY office.
  2. I called the folks in Brooklyn. They treated me like I was insane. They swore up and down that no such form to request these documents existed on the SSA website and that if I paid I must have done something wrong because they don’t charge for anything like that. (Keep in mind that I had the form pulled up in front of me on the secure website, and I’ve ordered and paid for these forms before and had them delivered.) I persist. He puts me on hold to ask someone else. When he comes back he tells me I need a different office — the Brooklyn card processing office. Either that or I can come in person to get another one (as in pay for new copies again) — given that I live in SE Pennsylvania and they’re in NY, I told them matter-of-factly that wasn’t gonna happen.
  3. I call the other office in Brooklyn. Actually, I call at least a half dozen times because their telephone system hangs up on you without a word if no one answers the phone after a set number of rings. When I finally reach someone I’m treated like an even bigger lunatic. Yet again the woman tells me no such form exists and I couldn’t have been charged for anything. Again, I persist. And I inform her that I can direct her to the online form right then and there and that I have email receipts showing the agency tracking number if she’d like them. She ignores me and puts me on hold to get a supervisor. She doesn’t come back from hold quickly enough and their system seems to automatically hang up on me (in just about the same amount of time it took to disconnect me when no one answered, so I doubt it’s a coincidence — faulty phone system setup is more like it).
  4. At this point I’m ready to blow a gasket. I call the national number again and get a nice woman on the phone. She ALSO has never heard of this form or paid-for forms for family history research. (Come ON folks!) She then finally figured it out and tells me it would have been sent to a special processing office or something when the online data and payment were received. I ask for the phone number. She tells me they don’t have one to give me. Are you serious? There’s no phone number on file for the office processing these quests people have paid for? I thought I was going to hyperventilate when she told me I could mail a letter. Ha! Right. And wait another couple of months while they sat on my money (keep in mind there’s also apparently no way to request a refund when they screw up like this). Exasperated, I tell her to give me the number for my local office. They fixed Brooklyn’s screw-up the last time around when an ordered certified copy came back uncertified. At least the people there have their heads on straight.
  5. I called the local SSA office and got in touch with a very nice woman. She could tell I was flustered, and genuinely tried to help. She was the first person who actually allowed me to walk her through their website to find the form where I submitted the request and paid them. She was the only one who treated me like I wasn’t just making this crap up. She took the tracking numbers from my email receipts, the SS numbers of the people I was trying to get information on, and the payment amounts. She promised to personally look into it for me, and she gave me her name and direct extension so I could follow up without having to explain this all to someone else yet again.

I’m giving it until the end of this week to follow up, and I’m hoping this will be the end of it. For something that should have been a simple online submission, lookup, printout, and mailing, this level of incompetence is absolutely astonishing. I’m not sure if I’m surprised by it or not coming from a government office. But when they don’t even know what records they make available, I think that’s a bit worrisome.

Have you ever gone through something like this as a genealogist where cutting through red tape to get information that’s supposed to be publicly available felt almost impossible? Share your story and let us know how it worked out in the comments below.

Jenn is a professional writer and publisher, and the founder of Climb Your Family Tree.

She first became interested in genealogy as a teenager. Since that early start, she's spent 28 years putting her personal passion and professional research skills to use in exploring her own family history while assisting others in their genealogical journeys.

In addition to running Climb Your Family Tree, Jenn is a long-time PR, social media, and online marketing specialist and she's been a digital publisher / web developer for over 20 years. She owns a variety of web properties including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, Kiss My Biz, and NakedPR.

2 thoughts on “Government Incompetence and Genealogists”

  1. Wow. That sounds like my experience the first time I called Verizon with a simple question. Thirty-two minutes and five people later, I didn’t have any answer and I was about to hurt something.

    I’ve not had to search for anyone using the government’s paid resources, amen. So far, all my information has been found either on a paid genealogy site or through search engine results.

    • Unfortunately when you hit a dead end, it’s sometimes the only option. The funny thing was, I’d already gotten one of these forms from them before. So they clearly DID know it was a possibility. But my grandmother wanted to keep that copy (which is fine), and I needed another. That time they also screwed up — sent me an uncertified copy when I requested (and paid for) a certified copy and I was required to go to the local office and have them stamp it instead (what the hell did I pay extra for exactly??). They did eventually send the “real” certified copy, months later. Problem was that I needed it asap for the German consulate.

      I’ve requested several others over the years without any problem. So I have no idea what the issue is lately. My guess is they’re just not educated about what they offer very well. If they don’t know their own organization’s website, that’s very concerning. How can they give citizens accurate info when they don’t even know the information their organization publicly gives?


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