You may think your deceased loved ones are safe from having their identities stolen. Not true! The Death Master File contains data about millions of deceased people including the full name, Social Security number and other personal information. Though you’d think this would be carefully guarded, the Social Security Administration provides the file to the Department of Commerce’s National Technical Information Service (NTIS). NTIS, in turn, distributes it to more than 450 entities including state and local governments, hospitals, universities, financial institutions, insurance companies and genealogy services. Even worse, anyone can access the information through the NTIS website. The cost? $10 for one person or an annual subscription with unlimited access to all of the files of deceased individuals costs $995.
The Social Security Administration created the file to help financial institutions and businesses prevent identity theft by using the file to cross-reference applicants and customers to verify they’re not using a dead person’s identity. According to CNN Money, Senator Bob Casey, Democrat, Pennsylvania, said the agency is “inadvertently facilitating tax fraud” and has called for restrictions to be placed on access to the Death Master File. The IRS has been adding protections but it’s struggling to keep up with a surge in tax fraud. The Treasury Inspector General said in May that the IRS could end up doling out $26 billion in fraudulent refunds over the next five years. In a congressional hearing in May, 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.
About 2.4 million deceased Americans each year get their identities stolen according to ID Analytics. Besides taking revenue from the government, thieves steal the personal information to apply for credit cards, cell phones and anything that requires a credit check. And think of the toll it takes on the families that have just lost a loved one. Their grief is compounded by having to rescue that person’s identity.
Because of the Freedom of Information Act, it’ll take legislation to restrict access to the file unless the Office of Management and Budget finds a way to limit access and cut down tax fraud. The best action you can take to protect your private information while you’re alive (and that will carry over in death) is to freeze your credit. A credit freeze is simply an agreement you make with the three main credit reporting bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion – listed below) that they won’t allow new accounts (credit card, banking, brokerage, loans, rental agreements, etc.) to be attached to your name/social security number unless you contact the credit bureau, give them a password and allow them to unfreeze or thaw your account for a short period of time. Yes, freezing your credit takes a bit of time (maybe an hour of work), can be a little inconvenient when you want to set up a new account (that said, let’s face it, businesses want to make it as easy as possible to unfreeze your credit because they benefit when you set up new accounts and spend more money) and it can cost a few dollars (generally about $10 to unfreeze, a small price compared to the recovery costs of identity theft). And it is worth it! It’s like putting locks on your doors.
Since all states don’t allow you, by law, to freeze your credit, the three credit reporting bureaus have begun to offer credit freezes on a national basis. This is a major step forward in the prevention of identity theft, even if they are offering it for profit reasons (they make money every time you freeze/unfreeze your credit). If your state does not currently offer credit freezes by law, you can now apply with each credit reporting bureau individually. Regardless of where you live, freeze your credit today.A credit freeze doesn’t affect your existing credit – it doesn’t freeze credit cards, bank accounts or loans you already have. It only freezes access to your account unless someone has a password to get in. It’s like having a PIN number on your ATM card. It also doesn’t lower (or raise) your credit score.
Equifax Credit Freeze
P.O. Box 105788 Atlanta, Georgia 30348
TransUnion Credit Freeze
Fraud Victim Assistance Department P.O. Box 6790 Fullerton, CA 92834
Experian Credit Freeze
P.O. Box 9554 Allen, TX 75013