Criminals stealing identity from the dead

Rob Koebel

Criminals stealing identity from the dead

By Rob Koebel. CREATED Feb 28, 2012 - UPDATED: Feb 28, 2012

MILWAUKEE- This is not a case of robbing graves: we're talking about identity theft.
 
The I-Team exposes a huge flaw that can make grieving families suffer even more.

Joanne Edling says her husband was a victim of tax fraud.  "You think when somebody dies their identity is supposed to die with them," said Edling.
 
When her husband, Hans, died in January 2011, she did everything a grieving widow would: plan his memorial service, write his obituary and dealing with lots of legal and financial paperwork.  "He was a tough person.  He handled death strong, he was not bitter," said Joanne Edling.
   
So in March 2011 when Joanne Edling went to file Hans' tax return, she says she got quite a surprise from the IRS.  She says they told her a tax return had already been electronically filed for her husband.
 
"I said it wasn't filed by me and it wasn't filed by my husband because he's deceased," said Joanne Edling.
 
Joanne Edling says that's when she realized her late husband was a victim of identity theft.  She filed an affidavit with the IRS and was in for an even bigger surprise.
 
"Somebody filed a false return in Florida under my husband's social security number, they also opened a bank account to get that money directed into their account," recalled Joanne Edling.  "I would have made sure his obituary was not out there if I knew this was going to be the result of it."
 
The IRS couldn't comment specifically on Hans' case and Joanne says her husband was retired and didn't pay many bills online.

John Hirt works for the Secret Service here in Milwaukee and he says this happens all too often.

"You know the birth date is on there.  The date of death.  Where the person lives..." said Hirt.  "It's a heartless crime essentially."
 
But the obituary may have just been the start.  Joanne thinks the thief got the information from her husband's death certificate.  When she got his death certificate, she says she couldn't believe Hans' full social security number was on there.
 
The death certificates for the state of Wisconsin come from Madison and the department has confirmed to the I-Team that some of those death certificates do contain social security numbers.
 
Requirements for obtaining a death certificate are fairly strict.  ID is required to apply for copies of vital records in person, by mail or by fax.
 
Social Security numbers of the dead also get filed into a database called the Social Security Death Master File.  While the Social Security Administration doesn't give the public access to it, other agencies do.

The National Technical Information service sells an annual subscription to it.  Carmen Balber with Consumer Watchdog says the hope was to create a master list so crooks couldn't use dead people's social security numbers to open credit cards or get a mortgage.  But she says it's having the opposite effect.  She spoke via Skype.
 
"No one's ever 100% certain where an identity thief gets their information so reason that many people have identified the death master file as a source is because it's often the only place that the specific social security number is available," said Carmen Balber.
 
Balber says the answer isn't to get rid of that database, instead just put less information in it.
 
"If the death master file simply excluded date of birth and age from that database it would be much more difficult for identity thieves to use that information," said Carmen Balber.
 
A Social Security Administration spokesman admits they're aware of concerns of ID theft with the death master file.  But they say it would take lawmakers to change it since it's a system that's been in place since 1980.  Joanne Edling says this whole ordeal has just made the pain of her loss that much more difficult for her and her son.

"He says 'mom if I found out who is doing this, I'm going to be really mad' and I feel there's nothing I can do," said Joanne Edling.