Identity Thieves Targeting The Dead

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Las Vegas, NV (KTNV) — Your social security number is the one thing you're told not to give out to just anybody. But what happens to it when you die? One Valley woman says thieves are targeting the one person who can't fight back, her dead husband. So how could that happen?

"You think when somebody dies their identity is supposed to die with them," said Joanne Edling.

But Joanne knows all too well that isn't the case. When her husband, Hans, died in January 2011 she did everything a grieving widow would. She planned his memorial service, wrote his obituary and dealt with lots of legal and financial paperwork.

"He was a tough person. He handled death strong he was not bitter," said Joanne.

So in March 2011 when Joanne 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.

Joanne 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," said Joanne.

We contacted the IRS who couldn't comment specifically on Hans' case. Joanne says her husband was retired and didn't pay many bills online.

"I would have made sure his obituary was not out there if I knew this was going to be the result of it," said Joanne.

She thinks she knows where the thief got his information.

When she got his death certificate, she says she couldn't believe Hans' full social security number was on there.

In Clark County, you get death certificates at the Southern Nevada Health District at the Vital Records office. The Southern Nevada Health District says they don't blur out social security numbers since their requirements for obtaining a death certificate are fairly strict. They say they request a copy, you need to be a direct family member or someone with a vested interest and you have to show ID.

Action News checked with some counties in neighboring states to see if they do the same thing. Maricopa and Pima Counties in Arizona choose to block out the social security numbers for the very reason that worries Joanne.

"They're making it too easy for identity fraud to take place," said Joanne.

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 file 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.

"No one is ever 100% certain where an identity thief gets their information so the reason that many people have identified with 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.

She 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.

Action News talked with a Social Security Administration spokesman who 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 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.

Joanne says she's still waiting for updates on the case from the IRS. But she says the local agent told her the thief got $2,600 hundred dollars from the false return.

If your loved one has died experts say be sure to inform credit card companies and banks.

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