While you’re grieving, scammers are out to profit.
We’re used to hearing about con artists who gain enough information about consumers to open new lines of credit or submit fake tax returns to get fraudulent refunds.
But swindlers also target the dead, whose personal information can be even easier to find.
Social Security numbers may be purchased on the black market. Or a crook may have a dishonest contact at a funeral home, hospital or nursing home facility.
Not just anyone can order a death certificate from the state, but if someone can get one, it will include — in New Jersey — the Social Security number of the deceased, his mother’s maiden name, the date of birth and other identifying information.
So indeed, there are plenty of ways a crook can get his hands on enough information about the deceased to run a fraud — and to profit.
For example, in 2014, a Georgia man pleaded guilty to stealing the identities of dead people to snooker 17 states out of $2.3 million in phony state tax refunds. The states he targeted included New York, Connecticut, Delaware and 14 others. New Jersey wasn’t one of them.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the man, Sirhon Rivers, obtained personal identification information from the deceased, then submitted state tax returns using that information, making up the rest, such as employment records.
Published reports said Rivers got the information, including Social Security numbers, from online genealogy web sites.
He’s now serving eight-and-a-half years in federal prison without an opportunity for parole.
The source of the information that fraudster obtained was public, though not all that well-known among non-criminal elements, authorities said.
It started with the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File.
The Death Master File holds more than 89 million records and is updated weekly. The file shares internal records from the Social Security Administration of those whose deaths were reported to the agency.
The Death Master File is only available to employers, government agencies and others.
But a modified version, called the Social Security Death Index, is public.
According to Ancestry.com, starting in 2014, the laws covering this database changed so records would no longer be available until they were three years old. But before that, just about anyone could access vital personal information about the deceased.
And it seems they have.
A recent review by the SSA’s Office of the Inspector General found at least one million active Social Security numbers belong to people who are at least 112 years old.
And likely deceased, with numbers being used for fraud, the report said.
The review found that one one person opened bank accounts using Social Security numbers for people born in 1869 and 1893. And the official SSA database showed both beneficiaries were alive. They’d be older than 145 and 121 years, respectively.
Auditors also found, from 2006 through 2011, nearly 67,000 Social Security numbers were used to report about $3 million in wages for people other than the cardholders.
THEY’RE DEAD. WHY BOTHER?
As you know, there’s lots of personal information out there, and it’s hard enough to protect yourself from identity theft when you’re alive.
It’s still important to protect the identities of your loved ones even after they’re gone.
Sure, if you’re dead, it may not matter to you if someone steals your identity and racks up bills that will never be paid.
It’s not that simple.
If the deceased person shares credit lines or bank accounts with a still-living spouse or other family member, the survivor could be in for a big headache if the deceased’s identity is stolen.
Plus, scammers who walk out on loans, credit cards and lines of credit eventually pass those unpaid bills on to consumers with higher costs for everyone.
And when the IRS pays a fake refund for a phony tax return, our government, and us, by extension, have money swiped from our collective wallets.
So if you lose a family member, make sure you get the word out.
First, report the death to the Social Security Administration at 800-772-1213. This will also stop any benefits the deceased was receiving. You sure don’t want to have Social Security coming after you for wrongly paid benefits.
Next, inform the IRS at 800-829-1040.
Then, call the state’s Motor Vehicles Commission at 609-292-6500, so no one can try to get a license in your loved one’s name.
All these agencies will require a death certificate, too.
“Contact all creditors that the deceased person(s) did business with and request that they mark their files accordingly, said Clifton O’Neal, a Trans Union spokesman. “Be sure to forward a copy of the death certificate, once you receive it.”
Same goes for all of the deceased’s bank and investment accounts.
Then, contact the three major credit bureaus — Equifax at 1-800-525-6285; Experian at 1-888-397-3742, and; TransUnion at 1-800-680-7289. Each agency will ask you for a copy of the death certificate.
“The scams we most often see after the death of a family member involve stealing and misusing Social Security numbers to gain access to credit,” said Meredith Griffanti, an Equifax spokeswoman. “In terms of fraud, misuse of the deceased’s existing open lines of credit can take time and be costly to discover and fix.”
To prevent this, she recommends you notify credit reporting agencies of the death, and place a security freeze and a fraud alert on the account.
“Additionally, if your family member has a monitoring product that needs to be cancelled, please include that request as well,” said Meredith Griffanti, an Equifax spokeswoman.
Experian said it doesn’t close or delete a credit file immediately after a person dies. Instead, the file will be “flagged” to indicate the individual is deceased.
“Doing so is important because it actually helps prevent using the deceased’s identity to commit fraud,” said spokeswoman Jelsey Stagner. “If someone were to try to use the dead person’s identity to apply for credit, the lender would receive a `deceased indicator’ and would be able to stop the transaction and take appropriate action.”
She said if Experian deleted the credit file, the identity thief would have a better chance of success because there would be nothing to report to the lender.
Accounts with the “deceased indicator” will be deleted after one year, she said.
Then for a few months after the person’s death, check their credit reports for free at AnnualCreditReport.com to make sure there’s no suspicious stuff going on.
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com.