Jewish World Review Nov 4, 2011 / 7 Mar-Cheshvan 5772
Feds must stop scam of stealing from dead children
By Dale McFeatters
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | In a ghoulish new identity theft scam, thieves are cashing in on dead children by stealing their Social Security numbers to fraudulently collect federal tax refunds.
And, as Scripps Howard News Service reporters Isaac Wolf and Thomas Hargrove learned, the heartless crooks are getting help from an unexpected source, the Social Security Administration itself, in a macabre twist that has caused no end of anguish for grieving families.
It's part of a broader form of identity theft. In figures provided to Scripps Howard, the Internal Revenue Service estimates that dishonest tax filers this past tax season alone submitted returns on 350,000 dead Americans, falsely claiming $1.25 billion in refunds.
The root of the problem is the SSA's Death Master File, which lists information, by law publicly available and easily accessible, on everyone who dies in the United States, including their birthdates and Social Security numbers.
Ironically, it was created at the request of businesses to prevent the misuse of personal information, for credit cards, loans and the like. But that was in 1980, before the Internet and superfast search engines could prowl the massive database.
The File contains 90 million names but con artists have begun to focus on the newest additions to the list, particularly children.
Last year, the Pilcher family of Potomac, Md., lost their infant daughter, Ava, to lung disease. As if that weren't pain enough, the IRS rejected their 2010 income tax filing because someone else had already claimed Ava as a dependent.
"All we really have is her memory and her name," says dad Matt Pilcher. "For someone to take that, to steal that, to appropriate that for themselves -- it's beyond reprehensible." But identify crooks need only file before the family does. And by the time the IRS learns of the theft, the money is gone.
The IRS can resolve the claims, a process that takes six to eight weeks. But the thieves are protected from angry families -- because federal privacy laws ban the IRS from disclosing the fraudulent claimants' names.
The problem of Social Security identity theft probably cannot be eliminated but it can be substantially reduced. Why it hasn't is a maddening example of government inertia.
The SSA could ask federal court to modify the 1980 order granting the public complete access to the Death File. It could ask Congress to write a new set of identity protections, particularly for dead children.
Simpler yet, it could implement the recommendations of a scathing 2008 audit by its own Inspector General's office. Such simple steps include waiting a year before posting the deceased's complete personal information and redacting Social Security numbers from the information provided to private genealogical databases.
But the Mormons, who administer the giant family database, FamilySearch.org, say the federal government prohibits them, and others, from doing so. The IG also urged that living Americans be notified when their personal information is inadvertently released, as happens about 14,000 times a year.
In addition to combating a particularly pernicious fraud, it would spare families needless additional pain over the loss of a child.
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