Identity theft happens to dead people too

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Identity theft using the social security numbers of deceased people is not at all uncommon. Sadly, it's can be easy to do successfully because there is usually no one actively monitoring the credit records of those who have died.

The danger of this type of crime was brought to light this week when a woman in Southern California was charged in federal court with aggravated identity theft and other fraud-related crimes. Tracy Kirkland is accused of using internet resources to get personal data of dead people, and then calling credit card companies to find out if they had any active accounts.

She used a genealogy website, Rootsweb.com, to find information on dead people. Such websites are often a treasure trove of private information for identity thieves. The website allows users to free access to the Social Security Administration's Death Index, which lists people's birthdates and social security numbers. And that is virtually all that is needed to get information out of a credit card company.

When Kirkland found a credit card company that had an account in the dead person's name, she would allegedly convince then to change the mailing address to a box she controlled. In more than one instance, she'd even get her own name added as an authorized user. Kirkland is accused of doing this to at least 100 deceased people, with the scheme dating back to October 2005.
Here's the irony: The death index is compiled and distributed by the Social Security Administration for the benefit of banks and lenders, so that they can stop people from apply for credit with the information of dead people. Unfortunately, this scheme was carried out with accounts already open... making it even more important that relatives or those in charge of an estate see to it that open credit lines and bank accounts are closed quickly.

Don't think that this is a victimless crime. Just because the person whose identity has been stolen is dead, doesn't mean there isn't a living victim. All consumers pay for thefts like this. The credit card companies and retailers with losses because of these schemes have to pass their losses on to someone, and that ends up being consumers like you and me.

Tracy L. Coenen, CPA, MBA, CFE performs fraud examinations and financial investigations for her company Sequence Inc. Forensic Accounting, and is the author of Essentials of Corporate Fraud.
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