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Senators try to block ID theft of the deceased

Benny Watters Lake Forest who passed away 2010.

Benny Watters of Lake Forest, who passed away in 2010.

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Updated: December 26, 2011 8:14AM

WASHINGTON — ID thieves would have a harder time trying to profit off the deaths of children and others under a House bill introduced last week to limit access to Social Security numbers available online.

When Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas) unveiled the “Keeping IDs Safe Act of 2011,” he criticized Social Security’s publicly released Death Master File, which has been used for at least a decade by thieves to access Social Security numbers, file bogus tax returns to the Internal Revenue Service and collect refunds.

Johnson’s “KIDS Act” would effectively end public access to the death file, which now can be searched for a small fee or even for free on genealogy and other online sites. The files contain the Social Security numbers and other personal information that can easily be used by identity thieves.

The bill introduction came two days after Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) met with Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue, calling on the agency to limit information released in the death file.

The Chicago Sun-Times early this month featured Benny Watters of Lake Forest, who had his identity stolen after he died at age 5 in September 2010, and the struggles his family has had with the Internal Revenue Service.

When Benny’s family filed a tax return in August 2011, it was rejected, apparently because someone else had stolen the boy’s identity and already had claimed him as a dependent.

Benny’s mother, Lisa, blames genealogy websites — Benny’s number is readily available on “I can’t understand why it’s necessary to display a whole Social Security number,” she said.

The introduction of Johnson’s bill came two weeks after a Scripps Howard News Service investigation documented similar cases across the country .

Johnson also blamed the administration of the death file for making life miserable for 14,000 still-living Americans a year who are erroneously listed as dead, which can place them in an Orwellian nightmare where it’s difficult to get jobs or open bank accounts, the Scripps investigation found in July.

The legislation would allow only law enforcement, tax administrators and government researchers to have access to the death file.

Scripps Howard News Service

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