Friday, December 23, 2011

The stolen identity of Ava Pilcher, or how the SSDI is being scapegoated

Facts. Truth. Provenance. Objectivity. We, as genealogists and researchers all desire these things. Yet, we are constantly at risk of losing access to records, oftentimes, because of our antithesis, misinformation.

The rise of genealogy and macrohistory in general have created pockets of resistance to genealogists, which threaten the history of the average person. Much of this resistance, in my opinion, is fear mongering. For members of Congress to claim the Social Security Death Index as a considerable weakness in keeping social security numbers out of the hands of criminals is based on two things: emotions and misinformation.

Much has been made about the Social Security Death Index and recent events regarding the future access to it by genealogists. The Internet is rife with the same few stories of identity theft and what appear to be articles lacking reliable facts that specifically prove the SSDI is a problem with identity theft. Implying the SSDI is at fault and proving it are two wholly unique positions.

One only needs to search the Internet for queries about stolen SSNs to realize that there are more instances of people taking advantage of their jobs and selling stolen SSNs or hacking computer systems and retrieving such information, than of the SSDI being abused. In fact, I have yet to see any data from government or private entities that specifically refers to the SSDI being abused or used in inappropriate ways. There is a distinct difference in facts and suppositions, and this is a case where the people pursuing the SSDI are severely misguided.

A concern with the SSDI is that people are guided by their heartstrings. I don't intend to come across as callous or being unsympathetic, but when a story makes the news about a criminal using the social security number of a recently passed child, it particular, it doesn't mean that a genealogical source was compromised. In genealogy we talk a lot about pedigrees and provenance. These cases all need to be looked at in that regards--who was in a position to take advantage of the situation from the time the child was ill to the death of said child.

I suspect more often than not, that someone who handled the paperwork along the way is responsible. In my queries regarding such stories, all I can find are articles where the implication is that the SSDI is the culprit. None of the stories I have found are well researched as they take members of Congress as being the end all authority on these matters, nor do they address what past research by Javelin Strategy & Research has shown: that a considerable amount of identity theft is committed by persons close to the victim. In findings published in the 2009 Identity Theft Survey Report, Javelin reported that 43 percent of identity theft cases were committed by people known by the victim. That means that 2 out of 5 cases of identity theft are committed by friends, family or acquaintances. Does that mean we need to legislate families and "friends"?

Let's ponder this for a moment:

So, if I were to tell you that your biggest threat of having your identity stolen is someone close to you, what would you do? Legislate? Would you propose congressional legislation mandating all family and alleged friends no longer interact with you or have access to you because of the potential risk of them betraying you? Would you take 40 percent of the people you know and remove them from your life because the statistics indicate they are potential Brutuses and Judases? I suspect that most people would keep these people within their circle of friends and family because the inherent value of being surrounded by people whose company we enjoy, regardless of the risk. Remember, Brutus and Judas were close associates of the people they betrayed. I focus on this because the biggest risk in the 2009 report by Javelin is people we know and associate with. Not strangers, but omeone we may have a connection with--a blood relative, a high school friend, a neighbor, a social acquaintance.

We have a greater risk of being betrayed by people we know than any other source, yet Congress seems to focus on the smaller and implied risk that the SSDI poses.

The SSDI is not Judas or Brutus. It is a tool that is being scapegoated by politicians. In an article published by the Scripps Howard News Service in November of this year, a story was written about an incident involving a young girl who died in 2010. The father filed his income tax to have it rejected by the IRS as his daughter had been claimed as an independent of someone else. The story can be found here. While this is a tragic story, we must deal with the facts and examine what the article says versus what is implied. Emotions often cloud facts, especially in these matters.

As a parent of two young boys, I can appreciate the severity of this situation and disclose this for not wanting to seem unsympathetic. I would be furious if this happened to my family, as Mr. Pilcher has every right to be. As a genealogist, I am concerned that the truth is implied here and the access to a tremendous research tool is being targeted incorrectly, or at least until all the facts are on the table.

I have take lines, as best I can without removing the contextual information, and snipped these for analysis below:
“We were able to go on a website and found all her information there. The Death Master File is where they (crooks) got that information,” Pilcher said.
This statement, combined with the paragraph at the bottom doesn't make for a fact. While Mr. Pilcher may have found the information on the Death Master File, it doesn't rule out other possibilities.
The Social Security Administration, as part of an investigation by Scripps Howard, acknowledged in June that it accidentally lists about 14,000 living Americans each year in the death database.
 The article continues on to say:
There is little grieving parents can do to protect themselves if thieves decide to take their dead child’s name, birthdate and Social Security numbers. Identity crooks need only file for a tax refund before the family can.
Really? I think there is a way to prove that the Internal Revenue Service bears the brunt of fault in this case. To claim a deceased child on one's tax returns, the IRS requires a SSN, or if a SSN is not available, "a copy of the child's birth certificate, death certificate, or hospital records instead". This information is located under the "Social Secuity Numbers for Dependents" section on this page, maintained by the IRS. This means that the theft of the child's identity could also have been committed by someone who handled the paperwork or was close to the family.
Criminals have found the perfect loophole,” said Joanna Crane, former manager of the Federal Trade Commission’s Identity Theft Program. “It doesn’t give the IRS time to detect that something is wrong. By the time they do, the money is already out the door.” [Emphasis added]
 This statement should be sounding alarms. So the IRS has some role in allowing identity theft to occur? The information published in this article implies the SSDI was where the information was gathered by the person(s) responsible.

The article closes with:
Pilcher, the Maryland dad, wants policy changes — and justice. Although federal authorities refuse to provide any details about who claimed Ava on their tax return — the IRS says it cannot divulge private information about anyone’s tax filings — Pilcher vowed to find the culprit.
“I don’t care how long it takes,” he said. “I’m going to find out who did it!” [Emphasis in bold added]
So, the IRS is capable of helping Mr. Pilcher save the identity of his daughter and they even have the paperwork that shows who stole her identity. Heck, they even paid that person money.

After examining the article, I'm starting to wonder if maybe the IRS is more responsible for the incidences of fraud than the SSDI could ever be. The IRS has all the resources to locate the responsible party, determine the process used to steal the identity and shed light on the real facts behind this story. The story highlights two things: a tragedy that has been highjacked by emotions and a bureaucracy that seems a bit callous to say the least. While I understand the IRS is limited by laws put in place for protection, these same laws are inhibiting justice and logic.

The facts in this article are that Ava Pilcher died in 2010 and that she was claimed by another party as a dependent on their tax return. Her father, Matthew Pilcher had his 2010 tax return rejected because Ava had been falsely claimed by another party. The IRS has the record of the culpable party and cannot divulge such information.

What is implied is that because Mr. Pilcher found Ava's social security number on the SSDI, it is at fault. He makes that as his claim, but cannot properly prove that position because of the IRS being unable to share who claimed Ava on their tax return. The tax return claiming Ava Pilcher would shed light on how the information was gathered based on the identity of the responsible party. Mr. Pilcher implies the SSDI is where the information was gathered but cannot prove this as fact.

The point in all of this is that the known facts of this case are a few and not very good ones at that. Also, the IRS is in a seemingly good position to find the responsible party, possibly absolving the SSDI of blame and punishing the criminals that perpetrated this act.

This does not preclude the possibility the SSDI was used in this case. It does show that we cannot tell one way or the other the culpability of the SSDI because of the lack of information. A lack of information does not indicate guilt or innocence, more that there is a need for further facts for the objective analysis that we, as a genealogical community, routinely hold ourselves to, and must demand of Congress.

1 comment:

  1. Probably those people who show too much interest and ask unusual questions and information about our dearly departed are the ones who are most likely to betray us. We must keep a close eye for those kinds of people.

    Annie Valdez