Ghosting … grave robbery for the 21st century
Kevin Paget, Contractor
During 2005, roughly 8.3 million Americans acknowledged that they were victims of identity theft.1 Identity theft can take on many different forms: from current checking and credit accounts being hijacked to social security numbers being stolen and new accounts created.2 But identity theft is not just a problem for the living anymore. One of the newest offshoots of this ever growing problem is called “ghosting”.4 Ghosting occurs when the identity of a deceased person is stolen. This problem becomes more visible when a celebrity is affected. On March 6, 2008, Courtney Love reported to a London newspaper that the social security number of her husband, Curt Cobain, had been used to purchase a $3.2 million home in New Jersey.5 This clearly is a problem since Cobain, the former lead singer of Nirvana, committed suicide nearly 14 years ago. According to Love, con men have been using her late husband’s social security number to defraud her of millions of dollars.6 Although this is only one example, it serves to illustrate the point that identity theft is everywhere and no one is immune from its effects.
Ghosting begins when an individual dies and the obituary is published in a newspaper. Identity thieves learn the full names and addresses of the deceased they plan to “ghost”7 from the obituaries. A variety of methods are used to obtain social security numbers and costs range from $45 to absolutely free. The Social Security Administration runs a Master Death Index, which is a searchable database that allows users to enter a name and receive social security numbers of deceased persons that match their search.8 The price to use the Master Death Index database – absolutely free! And if this free search does not give the identity thief the information they are looking for, there are sites such as www.secret-info.com. The site advertises that if you “supply a name & address or previous address, we will supply a social security number” for only $20 - $45 per search.9 Kwezeta Butler of Albany, GA, used these types of services to secure social security numbers of deceased people from five different states, then later sold the names and social security numbers to individuals with bad credit for up to $600 a piece.10 As of February 2008, the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles had records of over 100 active licenses registered to deceased persons.11 These kinds of ghosting scams alone have resulted in over $1 million worth of fraud, and are still ongoing throughout the country.12
There are several things people should know to address ghosting. First, there is nothing in place to automatically notify financial institutions that their customer is deceased.13 In fact, the account of a deceased person will remain active until they receive proper notification of the death from either the Social Security Administration or the individual’s family.14 These accounts can remain open for up to 10 years without any activity.15 And it is for this reason that identity thieves target the recently deceased.
At least one state has proposed legislation that would require federal agencies to report deaths to the credit reporting agencies (CRAs), thereby alleviating the burden placed on the families of the recently deceased. A bill like this would result in much faster reporting which would cut down the possible 10 year post mortem account activity.16
Families of the recently deceased are encouraged to immediately notify the Social Security Administration about the death and to contact all three CRAs.17 In addition, CRAs should be supplied with copies of the death certificate. The deceased survivors should request that the deceased’s account be flagged with a message saying, “Deceased. Do not issue credit.”18 These measures hasten the process of deactivating accounts of the recently deceased and help to eliminate at least one avenue that identity thieves use to secure stolen identity data. If identity theft of a deceased family member is suspected, one should immediately contact the CRAs and request a credit report in order to check activity on these accounts.19 If there is indeed any unauthorized activity, both the police and interested creditors should be notified immediately.20
In addition, when publishing an obituary several pieces of information should be omitted. This can reduce identity theft or at least make it harder for the thief to glean necessary information. One source recommends that full addresses and full birth dates not be published in the obituary as these are critical pieces of information that an identity thief uses in securing these stolen identities.21
Becoming aware of the problem of ghosting is just the first step in being able to detect wrongdoing by identity thieves before lasting damage is done. Individuals who follow these steps when a family member dies can greatly reduce the chance that their loved one will be a victim, and greatly reduce the headache that comes along with identity theft.
1FTC, Federal Trade Commission – 2006 Identity Theft Survey Report 11, http://www.ftc.gov/os/2007/11/Synov ateFinalReportIDTheft2006.pdf (Nov. 2006).
3Identity Theft Victim’s Support Group of North America, ID Theft Victim’s Support Group of North America, Identity Theft Realities, http://www.identitytheft-victims-support-group-of-north-america.org/home.html (Last accessed March 10, 2008).
5Philadelphia Inquirer, Courtney Love: Smell’s Like N.J .Identity Theft, http://www.philly.com/philly/news/2008 0310_Courtney_Love__ Smells_like_N_J__identity_theft.html (Last accessed March 10, 2008).
7MSNBC, Grave Robbery: Stop Identity Theft of the Dead, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18495531/ (Last accessed March 10, 2008).
810 News.com, San Diego News, Identity Thieves Preying on the Deceased, http://www.10news.com/news/ 9331792/detail.html (Last accessed March 10, 2008).
9Secret-Info, Secret-Info.com, Our Online Searches and Search Fees, http://www.secret-info.com/searchcosts.html (Last accessed March 10, 2008).
10Supra n. 7.