Feature Story

Identity Theft Against Seniors and Deceased

by Tony Miller

How Identity Theft Occurs

Identity theft is becoming one of the most common crimes against the elderly in the world today and much of the activity of identity theft centers around online activity. With this type of activity, you could lose much of your online identity and the thief could take advantage of your credit. In 2010, about 8.6 million households were negatively affected by identity theft in some way. With such high numbers of people being affected, figuring out how identity theft occurs and \ then how to stop it is essential.

Online identity theft can occur in many different ways. One common technique that identity thieves use is a phishing scam. With a phishing scam, the scam artist sets up a fake website or e-mail that looks like it is from a legitimate source. When you enter you login credentials into the e-mail or site, the thief then has your information and can use it to access your account.

In other cases, a hacker can simply gain access to your e-mail or other online accounts. This can be done with advanced software or simply by guessing a password. Once the hacker has access to your account, he can do many different things that will affect you negatively. In some extreme cases, the hacker could login to your bank account and transfer money out of it.

When you enter your personal information into questionable websites, it could be misused. For example, if someone took your Social Security number, he could use it to open new credit accounts in your name. The thief could also ask for a credit line increase on one of your credit card accounts and then use the credit with this information.

It is estimated that over $1 Trillion of property is stolen each year through cyber-crime and this amount continues to increase each year.


Another form of identity theft is Ghosting. This involves the stealing not only an individual's identity but even the role of the deceased individual (Ghost). Usually, the person who steals this identity (Ghoster) is roughly the same age that the ghost would have been if still alive. The purpose of ghosting is to enable the ghoster to claim for his or her own use an existing, dormant identity that is already listed in government records. A ghoster can obtain a passport or Social Security benefits in the name of a deceased individual because the agencies in charge of those services do not routinely cross-check an applicant's history to determine if a Death Certificate has been issued in that person's name.

Surprisingly, it is easier for a female to appropriate a deceased individual's identity than it is for a man. A female ghoster can steal the identity of a deceased female who had married and taken her husband's name. Detection is more difficult in this case because the Death Certificate and the Birth Certificate will show two different surnames. Also, gaps in the ghost identity's employment history (the years between the ghost's death and the date when the ghoster claims that identity) will arouse less suspicion if the impostor is a female, who might conceivably have spent the transition years as a homemaker with no wages.

John Breyault of the National Consumers League is quoted as saying, "Consumers can go online, on any number of sites, and get an individual's full name, date of birth and full Social Security number, which we call the holy trinity of personally identifiable information." The House Ways and Means' Subcommittees on Social Security and Identity Theft held a hearing on this growing problem. 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. In May of 2014, IRS Deputy Commissioner Steven Miller said that as of mid-April, his agency had already flagged 91,000 Tax Returns that were filed under the names of recently deceased individuals.

The identities of deceased individuals are not just being stolen for tax-related fraud. A recent report from a fraud prevention firm, ID Analytics, showed that identity thieves also steal personal information to apply for credit cards, cell phones and anything else requiring a credit check. About 2.4 million deceased Americans get their identities stolen each year, amounting to a rate of more than 2,000 thefts per day.

Stealing Your House

The con artists start by picking out a house to steal—say, YOURS. Next, they assume your identity—getting a hold of your name and personal information (easy enough to do off the Internet) and using that to create fake IDs, social security cards, etc. Then, they go to an office supply store and purchase forms that transfer property. …After forging your signature and using the fake IDs, they file these deeds with the proper authorities, and lo and behold, your house is now THEIRS.*1

Identity Theft

Identity Theft1

How Victim Information is Misused

How Victim Information is Misused2
(Click to enlarge)

SSA: Death Master File

In today's Society it is important for a family, who has experienced the death of a loved one, to be aware of lurking dangers. The Social Security Administration has a Death Master File (DMF) which they are required to release to the public as a result of a court case under the Freedom of Information Act. The Death Master File (DMF) contains the complete and official Social Security Administration (SSA) database extract of the deceased. The Social Security Administration (SSA) authorizes the use of this database as an identity verification tool for Banks, Credit Agencies, State and Local Governments, Hospitals, Universities, Insurance Companies and others to attempt to prevent identity theft after someone dies. Unfortunately, anyone can access the Death Master File (DMF) by going to the Social Security website, and subscribing to the Limited Access Death Master File. To subscribe, the user has to understand that they are actually being routed to a non-governmental website. This site explains the different type of subscriptions that are available. So, if a person chooses to inquire about someone they can pay a fee of $10.00 and make the inquiry. For an annual subscription with unlimited access to all deceased individuals, the price is $995.00. It is actually possible to subscribe for up to 100,000 queries annually, for less than $23 per inquiry. Identity thieves commonly use this data to take over a person's property and finances.

Identity Theft Against Seniors

Identity theft and scams against seniors are much more common than against younger Americans. According to a recent survey by the Investor Protection Trust, one out of every 5 Americans over the age of 65 has been the victim of a financial scam. If it sounds too good to be true it probably is. Do your research. Everybody knows that protecting their credit from identity theft has become an important part of life. According to a recent study by the Federal Reserve, almost 80 percent of seniors have credit scores of 701 or better, and another 10 percent have scores of 660 to 700. These scores should qualify seniors for the lowest interest rates. If you can qualify for a lower interest rate that you are currently getting, by all means do so. Of course, credit thieves target seniors because they know their credit is usually excellent.

More Information

Protect Yourself

  1. Make a copy of every account, deed, license, insurance policy, and other important document and keep the copies in a safe deposit box.
  2. On the death of a loved one: Remove the name of your loved one from every joint account including auto loans, deeds, mortgages, bank accounts, credit cards, IRA accounts, insurance policies, etc. Cancel all licenses and individual accounts of your loved one.
  3. Cancel passports.

Credit Cards

  1. Do not sign the back of your credit cards.

What Not To Carry

  1. No identification that includes Social Security number, any PIN numbers or passwords.
  2. No blank checks
  3. No spare keys for your house or car
  4. Medicare card (carry a photocopy with the last 4 digits cut out
  5. Make a photo copy of both sides of everything in your wallet.

This includes credit cards and identification cards (driver's license, insurance cards, etc.) If traveling overseas, make a copy of your passport.

Lost Or Stolen Wallet

  1. Immediately call all of your credit card companies to report a lost or stolen card and to request an account number change. Tell them you want a new number issued. That way nothing will show up on your credit report. Keep the toll free numbers of each credit card handy for such a call.
  2. Change all of your passwords immediately. The best passwords are a combination of numbers and letters. Do not use your birth date, mother's maiden name or your pet's name, which can easily be found online.
  3. File a Police Report. Get a copy of the report because you will need them for insurance purposes and possibly in dealings with the credit card companies.
  4. Request a fraud alert be placed on your credit accounts with the 3 main Credit Bureaus. If you contact any of the 3 main Credit Bureaus, Experian (888)397-3742 www.experian.com, Equifax (800) 525-6285 www.equifax.com and TransUnion (800) 680-7289 www.transunion.com, they will contact the other two.
  5. Call the Social Security Administration Fraud Line.
  6. Place an alert (800) 269-0271.
  7. Contact your local Department of Motor Vehicles. Have your Driver's license flagged so that no one can apply for a new copy of your license to use for identification purposes.
  8. Wait a couple of weeks to check your credit. Go to the website www.AnualCreditReport.com or call (877) 322-8228 and check again after a couple of months.