Casey Reveals: Lax Fed Rules Allow Identity Thieves To Obtain Other Americans’ Social Security Numbers for As Little As $10

Criminals Can Purchase Social Security Numbers Through Government’s ‘Death Master List’ And Easily Assume Americans’ Identities

In Letter, Casey Calls On Feds to Issue Stalled Rules That Would Strengthen Privacy Protection

Washington DC- U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), today, revealed that lax federal rules currently allow identity thieves to obtain other Americans’ Social Security numbers for as little as $10.

Currently, criminals can purchase a document that the Social Security Administration calls the ‘Death Master List,’ which contains pertinent information like Social Security numbers that can be used in identity theft and tax fraud schemes.

In a letter to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Casey called on the Administration to finalize stalled rules that would bolster privacy protections and better protect Americans’ Social Security numbers.

“It’s simply unacceptable that an identity thief could purchase the personal information of deceased Americans and commit fraud for the cost of lunch,” Casey said. “1.3 million cases of identity theft in tax fraud in 2011 and over 700,000 cases since March should be a wakeup call to the Administration that it’s time to act and issue these stalled privacy protections.”

The Social Security Administration (SSA) allows the public to purchase access to the Social Security Numbers of deceased citizens and legal residents.  The release of this information is believed to have facilitated a significant amount of fraudulent tax filings and other fraud. 

Death Master File

In 1980, SSA entered into a consent agreement to release death information following a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.  This information is available to purchase online through the Department of Commerce.  The database contains much of the information needed to steal someone’s identity; it includes the full name, Social Security Number, date of birth, and date of death of deceased citizens and legal residents.  The records of a single individual can be purchased for as little as $10, and the entire database is available for around $2,000.  The information has important legitimate uses; the financial community, insurance companies, security firms, and state and local governments all use the death master file to match records and prevent identity theft.  However it has also allowed criminals to file fraudulent tax returns.

Tax Fraud

Data from the death master file allows perpetrators to file fraudulent returns impersonating a deceased taxpayer.  This year, as of March 2012, the IRS had identified 66,000 fraudulent returns from recently deceased taxpayers.  Many additional fraudulent returns from deceased taxpayers may go undetected since no legitimate taxpayer may ever attempt to file again with the decedent’s Social Security Number.

These returns contribute to the growing problem of identity theft in tax fraud.  Overall, the IRS reports that they identified over 1.3 million identity theft returns in 2011 and this year had identified 720,000 as of March 2012.  However, these figures only represent the returns the IRS was able to identify, so the actual figure is likely much higher.  In May 2012 testimony before House Ways and Means, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration estimated that the IRS will issue approximately $26 billion in fraudulent tax refunds resulting from identity theft over the next five years if nothing is done to address the issue.

Statistics were provided by the IRS and its Inspector General. The full text of Casey’s letter to OMB and SSA can be seen below:

July 19, 2012

The Honorable Michael J. Astrue

Commissioner of Social Security

The Honorable Jeffrey D. Zients

Acting Director

The Office of Management and Budget

Dear Mr. Astrue and Mr. Zients:

I am writing to urge you to move forward with proposed changes to the Social Security Administration’s policy on the release of the so-called “death master file,” and provide regular updates on its implementation.  This document contains the Social Security Numbers and other vital information of deceased citizens and legal residents.  As you know, the public release of this information has contributed to the troubling problem of identity theft in tax returns. 

The accessibility of the death master file appears to be inadvertently facilitating tax fraud.  While the information released in this file has important legitimate uses, it has also been used to file fraudulent tax returns under the names of deceased taxpayers.  For $10, an individual can purchase the full name, Social Security Number, date of birth, and date of death of a deceased citizen or legal resident—the information needed to steal an identity and defraud the government or private businesses.  This theft of deceased taxpayers’ identities has grown into a serious problem.  This year, as of March 2012, the IRS has identified 66,000 tax returns of recently deceased taxpayers that are likely fraudulent.  This fraud not only takes revenue from the government, but it also forces families that have just lost a loved one to confront the ordeal of resolving this identity theft.  These families often have no idea that their loved ones’ personal information had been put on sale by the federal government.

The use of identity theft to file fraudulent returns has grown substantially.  According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), last year over 1.3 million identity theft returns were detected and stopped from processing.  The most recent data from March 2012 indicates that this year the IRS had already identified more than 720,000 identity theft returns.  These numbers only represent returns that were detected by the IRS during processing.  The number of overall identity theft returns is much greater because in many cases, the identity theft is not discovered until the legitimate taxpayer attempts to file.  For taxpayers who do not have a filing requirement, the identity theft and corresponding revenue loss may not be discovered at all. Identity theft of deceased taxpayers is a significant part of this problem and has been exacerbated by the release of the death master file. 

Over the past few years, the IRS has taken significant steps to address fraudulent returns.  It has improved its processing system for tax returns, using filters to detect fraud before a refund is issued.  The IRS has also stepped up its criminal prosecutions and established a program to use information received from other law enforcement agencies to flag taxpayers whose identities are known to have been stolen.  Nevertheless, identity theft continues to cost taxpayers billions of dollars every year. 

It is our understanding that the Office of Management and Budget is currently reviewing a proposal by the Social Security Administration to restrict the release of the death master file to entities that have both a legitimate need for these data and the capabilities to secure the information.  I request that you provide the status of this proposal, a list of any impediments to moving forward with the proposal and a timeline for implementation.

Identity theft creates a significant hardship for many American families, and robs our Nation of taxpayer dollars at a time when we face serious fiscal challenges.  Addressing this issue will require a significant, coordinated effort.  Preventing the widespread publication of deceased citizens’ vital records is an important first step with broad support.  I urge you to limit access to the death master file as soon as possible.


Robert P. Casey, Jr.

United States Senator