It was devastating for the parents of Logan Bryant when their infant son died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) at daycare last summer, but now they are facing another blow. Shortly after his death Logan became a victim of identity theft. Using the Death Master File it is thought identity thieves were able to access Logan’s full name, birth date, and Social Security number. They were then able to use that information to file a phony income tax return in Logan’s name making him a victim of income tax identity theft. As I have described in a number of Scams of the day, the Death Master File is a federal database that contains the names and Social Security numbers of more than 83 million dead Americans. The list was initially established to help federal agencies, insurance companies, tax collectors and others be able to prevent fraud by being able to confirm when someone has died so that further lifetime benefits would not be issued under that name. However, as an unfortunate byproduct of the Death Master File, identity thieves regularly check it after getting names from obituaries (the file is available to absolutely anyone) and get the Social Security numbers for recently deceased people. They then access credit in the names of the deceased as well as file phony income tax returns on behalf of the deceased and other identity theft tactics. When Congress finally was able to reach a budget agreement and stop the federal shutdown, a part of the budget law included removing public access to the Death Master File. However, as of today the list is still available to anyone, including identity thieves because the National Technical Information Service, the federal agency that manages the Death Master List has not closed it because it still needs to make provisions for access to the list by organizations that need the information for legitimate purposes. It is expected that this process could take months before it is completed. Meanwhile, a recent study by the federal government’s General Accountability Office indicates some federal agencies that need this information to prevent fraud are not getting the acce1ss that they need.
Identity theft from dead people is a significant problem, but there are steps that you can take to limit this as a problem in your own family. First, you should consider limiting the personal information that you put into a family member’s obituary. Often this information is exploited by identity thieves to assist them in making your deceased family member a victim of identity theft. Additionally, you should contact the three major credit reporting bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion to inform them of the death of your family member and to instruct them to close the credit report of your family member in order to avoid someone with access to your family member’s Social Security number from getting access to his or her credit report to use to make large purchases. Although infants do not have credit reports, their deaths do appear in the Death Master File. Hopefully the National Technical Information Service will act soon to prevent this type of identity theft from continuing to happen and parents, such as those of Logan Bryant can be spared this extra grief.