When Loved Ones Die, Their Identity Is There for the Taking

Identity thieves steal Social Security numbers from the Master Death List.

ByABC News
May 8, 2012, 2:27 PM

May 8, 2012 -- Alexis Agin was 4 years old when she died last year from a brain tumor. As her parents grieved their daughter's loss, someone else paid attention to the details of her death too.

An identity thief was easily able to get Alexis' personal information after she died. Her parents had no inkling until they went to file their taxes. Then, to their astonishment, they learned that someone else had already filed a tax return, using Alexis' Social Security number and claiming her as a dependent.

The Agins soon learned they were one of many. "Within an hour of learning that my daughter's Social Security number had been compromised and stolen," said Jonathan Agin, "no fewer than 14 other parents whose children passed away due to cancer contacted us and advised us that their children's Social Security numbers likewise had been stolen."

Americans are told to jealously guard their Social Security numbers, but after one dies, the government goes public with that coveted information. It is all included on a Master Death List.

"This is a database of more than 80 million records that the Social Security Administration maintains of all the deaths in the country. And that information is actually publicly available," said John Breyault at the National Consumers League. "Consumers can go online, on any number of sites, and get full name, date of birth and full Social Security number, which we call the holy trinity of personally identifiable information."

The list is used by banks, credit agencies and others to try to prevent identity theft after someone dies. However, a court case in the 1970s forced the Social Security Administration to make the list public, under Freedom of Information Act laws. "Unfortunately, dead people don't have any privacy rights," said Breyault, "That information, once you're dead, is publicly available information."

"Within 30 seconds of learning that my daughter's Social Security number had been stolen, I went online and found her Social Security number," Agin told ABC News. "All the information is there."

Breyault of the National Consumer League showed ABC News just how easy it was. He sat down with me at a computer and pulled up a wealth of information on my husband, who died of cancer last year. My tax refund for this year has now been held up because someone else filed a return, apparently using my husband's Social Security number. The Internal Revenue Service said it might be a simple mistake by the other taxpayer, not a case of identity fraud. The agency, however, can't yet tell me for sure as it works to unravel the situation.

Today on Capitol Hill, the House Ways and Means' Subcommittees on Social Security and Identity Theft held a hearing on this growing problem.

In his testimony, Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration, told lawmakers that while processing tax returns in 2011, the IRS managed to flag and stop 940,000 returns that appeared to involve identity theft. The refunds requested on those returns totaled $6.5 billion.