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Video: Stealing the identity of the dead

updated 5/10/2007 10:00:15 AM ET 2007-05-10T14:00:15

There's a new especially despiciable crime — crooks who steal the identities of the dead. In the final part of a special TODAY series called “Scam-Proof Your Life with Sid Kirchheimer,” the author, who writes the Scam-Alert column for the A-A-R-P Bulletin, offers tips to stop scammers from stealing your deceased loved ones' information.

Even the dead can be victims of identity theft. During 72 years of life, Johnnie Salter had only two credit cards. “And I made him get one of them so he could make travel reservations for a fishing trip with my son,” says his sister, Billie Crane.

Just before that vacation, Salter, who lived in Cordele, Ga., died suddenly from an aneurysm. Over the following two weeks, in January 2002, Crane discovered 21 credit applications made in her brother's name.

“A new car and about $10,000 had been charged,” says Crane, 73. “It's bad enough to steal someone's identity and ruin their credit history. To do it to a dead man, and to his family so shortly after his death, it's just terrible.”

But it's certainly easy, authorities say. Scammers troll through obituaries for names and addresses. Then they buy Social Security numbers and other personal data — such as credit histories — of the recently departed for as little as $15 on the Internet.

“About 400,000 checking accounts were opened in the names of deceased people in 2004,” says Jay Foley of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a San Diego-based consumer advocacy group. But often the goal is to open credit accounts in the name of the dead.

Johnnie Salter was one of scores of people in five states whose identities were allegedly stolen after they died by Kwezeta Butler of Albany, Ga. After getting their names, Butler bought their Social Security and account numbers, says Danny Jackson, special agent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

“She then sold that information — sometimes with a fake driver's license or ID card that she created — for up to $600 to people with bad credit, who would buy cars and open credit accounts in the names of the deceased.”

Some 100 car loans valued at $1.5 million were obtained this way, including one for a Mitsubishi purchased in Salter's name. When the deadbeats defaulted on payments, their debt appeared on the credit histories of the dead. In such cases, surviving family members are unlikely to be held liable for the debt, but they may pay a price — in time and money — to unsnarl the credit and bank records of their relatives.

Billie Crane first sensed something was amiss with her brother's finances when she found a letter at his house from a clothing chain about a new credit account opened for him — several days after he died. She alerted her son, Salter's fishing buddy, who's also a county deputy sheriff.

“We immediately ran Johnnie's credit history through the three credit-reporting bureaus and discovered the 21 applications," Crane says. "Most of those credit cards were mailed to a vacant house, but someone would come by each day to collect the mail.”

An investigation resulted in the arrests of Butler and 54 others who had purchased data about the late Salter.

“When a loved one dies, and there's so much else going on, you really don't think about having to protect their name and reputation,” Crane says. “But unfortunately, you really have to.”

Here's how:

  • Don't include details such as day and month of birth (use only the year) or addresses in obituaries. (Aside from preventing identity theft, “you don't want thieves to visit the house, helping themselves while you're interring a loved one,” Foley says.)
  • Promptly notify the Social Security Administration of the death at 800-772-1213 between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on business days. For the hearing impaired, the number is 800-325-0778.
  • Mail copies of the death certificate to all three credit-reporting bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — and all credit issuers to cancel accounts right after the person dies. The credit bureau addresses are:

Equifax Office of Fraud Assistance
PO Box 105069
Atlanta, GA 30348

Experian
PO Box 9530
Allen, TX 75013

TransUnion
PO Box 6790
Fullerton, CA 92834

  • Contact your state department of motor vehicles to cancel any driver's license and prevent duplicates from being issued.
  • By law, you are entitled a free credit report from all three main bureaus every year. Several weeks following the death, use this service — at www.annualcreditreport.com — to run a credit report on the deceased to ensure there's no suspicious activity.

Sample Letter
Here is a sample letter to help prevent the risk of identity theft of the dead. It should be mailed to all of the deceased’s credit issuers, and to each of three credit — reporting bureaus:

Dear Sir/Madam:
To prevent any future risk of identity theft, please place an official death notice on the credit file of:

DECEASED’S FULL name (with middle initial if used)
ADDRESS
SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER
BIRTHDATE

Enclosed you will find a copy of his/her death certificate.

Please contact me, his/her (describe relationship — widow, widower, son/daughter) if you have any questions at phone (XXX) XXX-XXXX or by e-mail at __________.

Thank you,

Your name
Address
City, State, Zip


Portrait of a Scam

Stephen Craver, who died at Slidell Memorial Hospital in July 2006, was among the more than 100 identity victims whose deaths, say officials, spelled opportunity for a family — run scam ring.

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After gathering their names from obituaries, Robert Ezell, 41, would have his mother — Rebecca Stockdale, 55, an emergency room clerk — search hospital records for personal information such as their birthdates and Social Security numbers, say police. Stockdale would then cell —phone text message those details to her son, who would then submit fraudulent credit card applications in the identities of the deceased; sometimes aided by his wife, Charlotte Cooper-Ezell, 49.

The trio obtained at least 17 fraudulent credit cards, which they used to buy thousands of dollars in merchandise. According to the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Department, which announced the arrests of the three on March 23, Ezell maintained a list containing the names and personal information of 70 victims.

Those credit cards would be sent to unoccupied houses near Ezell’s home that had been damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Ezell would regularly check the mailboxes to see when the cards arrived, say police, who were tipped off by an associate of Ezell’s.

The mother and son were each charged with 124 counts of identity theft, and scores of other charges. Cooper-Ezell was charged with 84 counts of identity theft. Cooper-Ezell is out on bond, while the other two remain jailed in lieu of $250,000 bond each; if convicted all face up to 10 years in prison for on count.

Excerpted from the AARP Bulletin by Sid Kirchheimer, author of “Scam-Proof Your Life.”Copyright © 2006 AARP.All rights reserved. Published by AARP Books/Sterling. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher

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