Stealing the identities of the dead seems too ghoulish a crime ever really to happen, right? You might think so, but this means it will no doubt shock you to learn that such crime does indeed go on – and that it happens more frequently than you suppose it would.
The case of Benny Watters offers an instructive glimpse into the nature of this crime. As a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article reports, the five-year-old Watters had already died of cancer when his parents discovered that some unknown person had attempted to file a tax return in their son’s name.
Her suspicion justifiably aroused, Benny’s mother, Lisa, did some Internet sleuthing in the hopes of getting to the bottom of this fraud committed in her deceased child’s name.
Lisa had only searched online briefly when she came across Benny’s Social Security number released on the Web by – of all entities – the U.S. government.
Young Benny’s Social Security Number appeared in the government’s Death Master File, a list kept by the Social Security Administration for purposes of keeping track of all citizens’ births and deaths. Despite the fact that the law deems this list a public document, it contains “birth dates and other sensitive information on more than 89 million deceased,” the Bloomberg Businessweek article reports.
Though the government itself doesn’t release its Death Master File to the Web, it does sell it “to local governments, hospitals, pension funds, and private companies.” Unscrupulous individuals then turn around and post copies they’ve obtained to the ‘Net, and they do so without fear of censure, because the government cannot prevent the dissemination of documents it considers public.
Easy access to the Death Master File has radically simplified the prospects for committing identity fraud – a development for which crooks no doubt feel tremendous gratitude. Using a deceased person’s Social Security number or other sensitive information, a thief can commit identity fraud in one of two ways:
- He can claim false income of his own, or;
- He can claim false dependents.
Upon filing the requisite tax forms, the thief can request that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) deposit the expected tax refund to a prepaid debit card account. The Bloomberg Businessweek article quotes Nina Olson, the U.S. Taxpayer Advocate, as saying that tax fraud involving a deceased person’s information represents “a ‘relatively new tactic’ in the realm of tax-related identity theft.” Though new, this form of fraud “has ensnared more than 490,000 victims since 2008.” And recovery can prove difficult, because “[o]nce the IRS dispatches the money to a debit card, it’s hard to trace.”
Experts insist that only legislative intervention from the highest level – namely, Congress – can stem the tide of funds flowing into fraudulent pockets. Yet such intervention would itself create difficulties. Insurers, credit agencies, and other ventures that rely on such information as contained on the Death Master File fear that legislative tightening could make it harder for these interests to protect themselves from possible fraud.
Until such time as the legislative wheels begin turning in the direction of addressing this issue, protecting deceased family members from identity theft remains the responsibility of those who survive them. A terrific resource for mounting such protection lays a mere mouse click away. Various companies offering identity theft protection and credit monitoring services populate the Web. Whether you choose to go with a such a top-flight identity theft protection provider as LifeLock or TrustedID, or you opt for tried-and-true credit monitoring from such established names as TrueCredit and FreeCreditScore.com, you can do a lot to see to it that the dearly departed continue to rest in peace.