Identity Theft is the fastest growing crime worldwide and recently the UK identified Impersonation of the Dead or IOD as the fastest growing form of identity theft. It is estimated that over 100,000 cases of IOD fraud have occurred and that identity theft costs UK citizens over 1.5 billion pounds per year. What is being done about it and does it happen in the United States?
What The UK is Trying to do to Prevent Impersonation of the Dead
Records of the recently deceased are going to be shared with law enforcement and credit reporting agencies in a joint effort between the Registrars General for England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The credit reference agencies of Experian, Tracesmart Ltd. and Faraday Tracing Bureau have been the first to be approved to receive the list. Any organization can apply to receive the information on recent deaths but agencies will have to go through a strict application process and agree to operate within a strict licensing agreement. It is expected that an average of 12,000 deaths will be reported weekly.
In the past, death records were made public but there was no organized way for law enforcement and credit agencies to easily access this information to prevent identity theft. People who collected death information from obituaries and impersonated the deceased to obtain new credit or take over existing bank accounts committed many identity theft crimes.
“I welcome the release of death records which will not only help to combat identity fraud but will also reduce the impact on relatives of the deceased forced to deal with the consequence of their loved ones’ identities being stolen,” said Home Office Minister Meg Hillier who praises the initiative. The initiative will be reviewed in 2009 to verify that it has lowered the number of identity theft crimes from Impersonation of the Dead.
It Happens in the US Too
One of the most infamous instances of identity theft of the dead in the U.S. involves California resident, Tracy June Kirkland who was charged by federal prosecutors with aggravated identity theft and other crimes. Kirkland went beyond obituaries and did her identity theft research on a popular genealogy web site Rootsweb.com. With names, social security numbers and birthdates in hand, Kirkland would randomly call credit card companies to find out if the deceased person had an account. If she confirmed an account, she would change the address to one of her many rental mailboxes. Accounts she swindled included Macy’s, GE Money Bank and Nordstrom Federal Saving Bank. Her three-year crime spree included various purchases and cash advances and used the personal information of over 100 deceased persons.
One of the resources offered by Rootsweb is free and up-to-date access to the Social Security Administration’s Death Index.
What is the US Death Index?
The Death Index is a list of people who have died that includes their birth dates and Social Security numbers. It was originally produced for banks and lenders to ensure that people did not exploit the deceased personal information. The Death Index is updated monthly and made public by the Department of Commerce under the Freedom of Information Act.
Kirkland took advantage of the Death Index by exploiting a loophole and taking over accounts that were already open.
“The reason the Social Security Administration has it out there is to prevent fraud, and when it’s used to perpetrate fraud it’s because not all the checks and balances were in place on the financial institution’s end,” says Mike Ward a spokesman for Rootsweb.
Dorothy Clark, spokeswoman for the Social Security Administration, says she’s not aware of any prior cases of the index being used to perpetrate fraud rather than prevent it. “None that I can attest to,” she says. “Nothing that I can say concrete.” (Hhhhmmm.) Makes you wonder if the US will pour “concrete” to close this “hole?”
It will be interesting to see the impact of the UK initiative on preventing identity theft and the US response to the uncovering of the obvious loophole in their Death Index initiative.