How Identity Thieves Steal Our Lives from the Cradle to the Grave: Part II: Robbing the Grave

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In March of 2010, Erica Paci got the worst news of her life. The Army informed her that her husband, Sgt. Anthony Paci, had been killed in Afghanistan.

Three months later, while Sgt. Paci’s widow was still grieving, she got another shock. Her late husband had been the victim of identity theft.  According to Military.com, Erica Paci learned about the crime when the IRS rejected the 2010 joint tax return she had filed.  The reason it gave: a return had already been filed using Sgt. Paci’s Social Security number.

Identity Thieves Are Targeting the Departed for Maximum Returns

 

Identity thieves are targeting Americans in record numbers. And a growing number of their victims have one thing in common: they’re dead.  Everett Dunlap, Jr., was one of those victims, according to CBS Eyewitness News in Philadelphia.

Everett died of brain cancer when he was only 17 years old. While his parents were mourning the loss of their son, they got a startling piece of news. The Dunlaps told Eyewitness News that, when they filed their tax return claiming Everett, Jr., as a dependent, the IRS told them that someone else had already used his Social Security number.

A 2011 GAO report found that the total number of tax related identity theft cases grew five-fold between 2008 and 2010 – to nearly a quarter of a million victims. And those who aren’t among the living are especially vulnerable.  According to a 2011 government lawsuit filed in Florida, the IRS processed over $12 million in bogus income tax claims under an electronic filing ID number issued to one tax preparer. As part of an elaborate scheme, the tax preparer was paid by someone else to secure the tax filing number. But he didn’t file the false returns. They were filed by an identity thief under the names of over 5,000 people who had died in 2009 or 2010.

The IRS and Social Security Flaws That ID Thieves Exploit

 

How could it happen? After all, the Social Security Administration sends weekly death reports to the IRS. Even so, that still leaves time for ID thieves to file tax returns using the names of deceased individuals for the year before they died.

How do identity thieves get hold of the Social Security numbers of the departed so soon after they’ve died? Often, it happens by exploiting a little known flaw in the law. The Social Security Death Index lists all deaths reported to the agency, including the names and Social Security numbers of those who’ve passed away. Under the Freedom of Information Act, that information must be available to the public. What’s more, it’s easy for cyberthieves to access it anonymously on various websites. All they need is biographical information about the departed that’s commonly found in obituaries. Death certificates with Social Security numbers are also easy to obtain online by filling out a form and paying a small fee. It’s that simple.

In her blog on tcpalm.com, Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers columnist Eve Samples recently reported on another case of ID thieves using a stolen Social Security number to rob the grave. When John Gonzalez got a letter from the IRS claiming that his mother, Margaret B. Gonzalez, had requested a $15,000 refund, he knew something was wrong. His 93-year-old mother had passed away a year earlier. She had actually owed $20,000 in taxes for 2009, which her sons had mailed to the IRS. After talking to the agency, John Gonzalez realized his mother’s identity had been stolen, according to Samples. Her return had been filed from another state, using a different middle initial – W.  But the IRS wasn’t convinced. It wanted more money to make up the difference. The Gonzalez brothers had to spend days providing proof to the IRS to clear their deceased mother’s name.

It’s not only that Social Security death records are easy to steal online. Now it appears that discrepancies in those records could expose even more of the departed to identity theft. Scripps Howard News Service recently discovered that the nearly 3,000 victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack are missing from the Death Master File, the Social Security Administration’s official list of deceased Americans. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., wants to know why. According to Congresswoman Maloney, a sampling of the victims’ names did not produce any matches; nor did the number of deaths reported on 9/11 reflect an increase from the typical daily average.

It may come as a surprise to most Americans that Social Security numbers were never intended to be used for universal authentication purposes. But that is how they are used today for everything from filing tax returns to securing credit, health insurance, a mortgage or a job. For identity thieves, that nine digit number holds the keys to the kingdom. Millions of them are stored in unsecured databases and transmitted over unencrypted wireless networks. And our Social Security numbers live on after us, available for the taking online free of charge.

Here’s what you can do to protect the identity and the legacy of your loved ones who have passed away:

  • Notify the Social Security Administration immediately when someone close to you dies.
  • Get certified copies of the death certificate of the deceased which are required to close their accounts. Send certified copies to Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, the three credit reporting agencies. Photocopies are not acceptable.
  • Obtain a free credit report for the departed from each credit reporting agency from www.annualcreditreport.com. Freeze the person’s credit to prevent it from being used by an identity thief.
  • Write to financial institutions to inform them of your loved one’s passing. Include the full name and/or the maiden name and address of the departed and date of birth and date of death, along with an original of the death certificate.
  • Don’t use these details about your loved one in obituaries: full birthdate, middle and maiden names and home address.
  • Shred all personal and financial documents belonging to the deceased  before discarding them. Secure the ones that you plan to keep.
  • Cancel the driver’s license of the departed.
  • If you plan to continue to use your loved one’s computer, make sure the that file sharing is disabled, the firewall is turned on, the antivirus software is up to date and frequent scans are performed.
  • Check that your loved one’s wireless network is disabled when it’s not in use, if it will continue to be used by someone else.
  • Make sure that you and the tax preparer for the estate of the deceased only transmit his/her personal information online over a virtual private network. VPNs like PRIVATE WiFi™ ensure that all the data traveling to and from a computer travels through a secure tunnel that’s invisible to hackers.

If you believe that your loved one was the victim of identity theft, visit the Federal Trade Commission’s site, Fighting Back Against Identity Theft, at www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft/consumers/defend.html

The IRS has a toll free number to assist identity theft victims: (800) 908-4490.

If your loved one’s identity was stolen after death, we’d like to hear what happened. Drop us a line and share your story.

 

 

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Jan Legnitto

Jan Legnitto is an investigative journalist and documentary producer who writes about criminal justice and intelligence issues. Jan is also a frequent contributor to the Private I blogs.