Monday, June 13, 2011
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
Servicemembers killed in action are frequent and easy targets of identity theft, officials with the Internal Revenue Service told Military.com, adding a potential financial nightmare to the lives of the grief-stricken families of the fallen.
Erica Paci, whose husband -- Army Sgt. Anthony Paci -- was killed in Afghanistan in March of 2010, discovered in early June that his identity had been stolen when her accountant received a notice from the IRS rejecting her 2010 joint tax return. The IRS said that a return had already been filed under her husband’s social security number and that Paci had to wait up to six months to get her tax refund while they investigated the incident.
“Mostly it makes me angry,” Erica Paci said. “It just makes me angry that there are people out there that would target people that are suffering and try to make money off it.”
A recent report by the Government Accountability Office found that tax-related identity theft has increased nearly five-fold since 2008. And thanks to a free, searchable online database of social security numbers and death information, deceased persons are easy targets, said John Sileo, an identity theft expert who deals regularly with the military.
“It’s basically a list of people whose identities you can steal,” Sileo said.
The Social Security Administration is required under the Freedom of Information Act to release the social security numbers of deceased persons. The data base, known as the Social Security Death Index, is available for purchase through the Commerce Department. The listing was originally intended to be used by businesses to ensure that employees were not using stolen IDs, Sileo said. But it is also available to thieves via a free search engine on websites specializing in genealogical information.
Learn how you can avoid identity theft.
The identities of KIA servicemembers may be even easier targets than most deceased Americans because their deaths and surrounding information, such as mother’s maiden name, are often featured in media reports, Sileo said. And unless the thief seeks to use the information to access health care or other military benefits, families likely won’t notice the serivcemember’s identity was stolen until tax time, if ever, he said.
“There’s no one there to notice it when it happens,” Sileo said. “Because there aren’t measures in place to stop the theft of the identity, why not take somebody who is never going to protest?”
John Robertson, Erica Paci’s accountant, said he has advised her to contact the credit bureaus and other financial institutions about the theft to avoid any more harm. So far, he said, it appears the only financial damage has been to her pending tax return.
But because Sgt. Paci was military, both Robertson and Erica Paci are concerned that the theft could have even greater implications. All of her military death benefits, including healthcare for their three children, are linked to Sgt. Paci’s social security number.
Sgt. Paci’s information could also be used to access sensitive military data similar to a New Zealand case in which Sileo was involved.
“There was a case I worked on ... where a bunch of New Zealand military members’ IDs were used to generate passwords and military documents for [Israeli spy agency] Mossad,” Sileo said. “These were all dead Kiwis who were all ‘working’ for the Israeli spy agency. I have no question that there are many deceased still walking around in some other form -- it’s infuriating and it’s really sad.”
After mourning her husband for more than a year, knowing that someone today may be maliciously using his identity is sickening, Erica Paci said.
“If that is the case and there is someone taking it to the next level, that actually makes me feel like someone kicked me in the stomach,” she said. “Just the thought of a person walking around and saying they are him and going into a bank and spending money -- it literally is a cross of anger and a pain of sadness. It brings back the grief pain.”
The Paci case is not an isolated incident, an IRS official confirmed. Although the IRS is not the cause of the identity theft, they are often the first to detect it and end up inheriting the problem. And while an agency official said they have caught over $929 million in fraudulent refunds before payout, the problem continues to grow.
Amanda Hand, whose husband Spc. Andrew Hand was killed in Afghanistan in July, 2010, has been trying to get her tax refund since February when she was told by the IRS that her husband’s identity had been stolen. With her husband’s death benefit and life insurance in a trust fund for her children, she was planning to live in part off the refund.
“My refund is supposed to be almost $8,000,” Hand said. “It’s just everything all at once just hitting us, and I just don’t know what to do about this IRS thing anymore. ... There’s somebody out there that’s taking money from a Soldier who died, taking that away from his family and that’s wrong, really wrong.”
Hand said she feels like the IRS has given her a runaround, refusing to answer questions about the investigation or give her information about when her refund will come through.
The IRS, which runs a hotline for identity theft victims, also has a separate partnership with DoD. providing military members free tax filing help through on base tax centers. They do not, however, have a specific office or phone number dedicated to helping families of the fallen sort through identity theft.
“We do want to work with the victims of this and help with this as much as we possibly can,” said Julianne Fisher Breitbeil, an IRS spokesperson. “We’re very well aware that this is an incredibly stressful time for them.”