Buy a Dead Person's Identity from Social Security for $10

dead people's idenities social security

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- For $10, identity thieves can access the full name, Social Security number and other personal information of a dead person through a list of millions of deceased Americans, known as the Death Master File.

The Social Security Administration created the file to help financial institutions and businesses prevent identity theft, by using the file to cross-reference applicants or customers to make sure they are not using a deceased person's identity. But Senator Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said the agency is "inadvertently facilitating tax fraud" by allowing any member of the general public to look up personal details about anyone who has passed away and potentially steal their identity.

In a letter to the commissioner of the Social Security Administration and the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget on Thursday, Casey called for restrictions to be placed on access to the Death Master File.

"Identity theft creates a significant hardship for many American families, and robs our Nation of taxpayer dollars at a time when we face serious fiscal challenges," Casey wrote. "Preventing the widespread publication of deceased citizens' vital records is an important first step."

Currently, the Social Security Administration provides the file to the Department of Commerce's National Technical Information Service (NTIS), which then distributes it to more than 450 entities including state and local governments, hospitals, universities, financial institutions, insurance companies, and genealogy services. However, anyone can access the information through the NTIS website. To obtain records for one person, it costs $10. For an annual subscription with unlimited access to all of the files of deceased individuals, the price tag is $995.

The IRS has been adding protections -- like special coding that allows the agency to identify deceased taxpayers whose Social Security numbers were previously stolen -- to make it harder for identity thieves to slip through the cracks. But the agency is struggling to keep up with a surge in tax fraud, and the Treasury Inspector General said in May that the IRS could end up doling out $26 billion in fraudulent refunds over the next five years.

In a congressional hearing in May, IRS deputy commissioner Steven Miller said that as of mid-April, his agency had already flagged 91,000 tax returns that were filed under the names of recently deceased individuals.

In his testimony, Miller cited an example of a Tennessee woman who was fined $110,000 and sentenced to 108 months in prison this year for obtaining names from the Death Master File and preparing fraudulent tax returns to get undeserved refunds deposited into her bank account.

"This fraud not only takes revenue from the government, but it also forces families that have just lost a loved one to confront the ordeal of resolving this identity theft," Casey's letter states. "These families often have no idea that their loved ones' personal information had been put on sale by the federal government."

Top Signs You May Have Been a Victim of ID Theft
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Buy a Dead Person's Identity from Social Security for $10
By Lita Epstein, credit and debt expert,

When even the announcer of the The Price Is Right is a victim of identity theft, you know the crime can happen to anyone. Rich Fields, of "Come on down" fame, reportedly had $71,000 stolen and had to freeze his accounts ' including his direct deposit of his pay -- while he tries to recover the money. At least he got wise to the problem.

One of the scariest things about identity theft is that you could be a victim and not even know it. Identity theft includes any act in which your identity is used fraudulently. I'm sure you've head of credit card fraud, where someone opens an account in your name or uses your credit card number without your permission. But other common identity theft scams include bank account fraud, phone or utilities fraud, government documents fraud and Social Security fraud.

In this feature, we list four red flags that can signal that you are a victim of identity theft.

First Up: Red Flag No. 1

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Your credit cards or other bills don't arrive when you expect them.

A thief could have changed your address with a financial institution and started using your credit card. Since the bills are no longer coming to your address, it will take longer for you to figure out the problem. Most financial institutions allow you to look at your accounts online. Do so regularly to avoid this problem. If you see charges you don't recognize, call your bank's customer service line immediately.

Next: Red Flag No. 2

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You start to receive credit cards for accounts you didn't open yourself.

A thief may have responded to a credit card offer using your name and credit history and been planning to intercept the card from your mailbox.

Don't hesitate one second. Call the financial institution that issued the card immediately and explain that the account was opened fraudulently.

Next: Red Flag No. 3

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You are denied credit even though you know you have a good credit history.

Whenever you are denied credit -- for whatever reason -- you are entitled to free copies of your credit reports from each of the three top credit reporting agencies; Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. As part of that denial, you should get a letter that tells you how to obtain those free credit reports. Take advantage of this law and review your credit report to see what the problem is. If you find fraudulent accounts on your report, follow the instructions that explain how to get them removed.

Next: Red Flag No. 4

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You get a call from a store about a purchase you know you didn't make.

If you do get this type of call, don't give out any information because the call could be a phishing attempt (that's when thieves pretend to be calling or emailing from a store or bank in hopes you will disclose personal financial information ' like your Social Security number or bank account password).

Find out as many details about the purchase as you can, as well as the caller's name and contact information. Look up a contact number yourself. Call the company after you've checked it out. Only after you know the company is legitimate should you give out any personal information. Then, call your credit card company and let them know that your card was used fraudulently.

Next: Here's What to Do If You Are a Victim

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Any time you suspect fraud you should place a fraud alert with all three credit reporting agencies. They will place a 90-day alert on your account, which can be extended. They will also send you a copy of your report to be sure there aren't other problems. These are the contact numbers to report fraud:

' Equifax - 1-800-525-6285
' Experian - 1-888-397-3742
' TransUnion - 1-800-680-7289

You can never err by being too cautious. It's better to report a possible fraud attempt and be wrong, than not to report one and allow a problem to continue to grow and fester.

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And the identities of dead people aren't just being stolen for tax-related fraud. A recent report from fraud prevention firm ID Analytics showed that identity thieves also steal the personal information to apply for credit cards, cell phones and anything else requiring a credit check. About 2.4 million deceased Americans each year get their identities stolen each year -- amounting to a rate of more than 2,000 thefts per day.

The Social Security Administration makes the contents of the Death Master File accessible to the public as a result of Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. Legislation would therefore need to be passed in order for the agency to restrict access to the file, Casey wrote in his letter.
The Social Security Administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Casey said that the Social Security Administration submitted a proposal to the Office of Management and Budget that would limit public access to the Death Master File, and the OMB now has the authority to approve the proposal and put protections in place. The OMB did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Taxpayer Advocate Service, the watchdog arm of the IRS, has also recommended that Social Security limit access to its file.

"We strongly support legislation to restrict public access to the [Death Master File]," TAS said in its annual report released last month. "By waiting for legislation that may or may not pass, we unnecessarily expose taxpayers to potential harm."

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