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Recently, I had Lunch with a Friend that Died Three Years Ago

February 23, 2016

Joanne S. Barry died three years ago…according to the IRS.  But, she is alive and still very active and I know it since we had lunch together.

I knew this was a serious concern but last week I watched an episode of CSI : Cyber and realized how severe a problem this is.  People are being killed or dying on the Cloud, but not in real life.

Watching the show was hair curling (and for me that’s a good trick – I should watch more of these shows).  These things happen and there is not much that can be done to reverse it.  This is an iteration of identity theft which is also a harrowing experience.

Joanne found out “she died” in May 2013 when her accountant told her last year that her tax return was rejected by the IRS.  In her case there was no identity theft and no other harm except that she was legally dead.  Her cause of death was a mistaken keystroke by a worker at the Social Security Administration.  It was a really small error that had very large and frustrating consequences for Joanne.  It turns out this carelessness happens to about 14,000 people a year.  Joanne has a big pulpit, she is the executive director & CEO of the NYS Society of CPAs, and she has written and talked about her experience and her firsthand involvement with the broken bureaucracy at the SSA and also at the IRS and the underfunding of these agencies by Congress.  Comment: Joanne is now among the living at the SSA and IRS through much time and great effort by her and her accountant.

Identity theft is another big problem in this Brave New Cyber World.  However, governments are not the culprits – cyber criminals are.  According to news reports there are about 15 million identity thefts a year.  That’s a lot and the IRS expects to receive over 3 million fraudulent identity theft tax returns this year.  Some of our clients have been subject to this and while they have lost no money, it is a tedious process to get back in the IRS’ good graces afterwards. The IRS, to their credit seem to have systems and processes in place to head some of it off, catch it while it is in process, and resurrect the innocent tax payers.

They even have a form and provide special identification numbers so tax returns can be filed and processed without delays.  The IRS also has Identity Theft Prevention and Victim Assistance fact sheets that can be accessed here and here.

It is difficult to stop this kind of theft, and impossible to stop the SSA errors, but the negative effects can somewhat be mitigated by diligence, and attention to slight changes or unexplained transactions.  Here are a few things you can do:

  • Refuse to provide Social Security Numbers unless it is absolutely essential
  • Do not send or ask to receive any emails that contain your Social Security Number
  • Do not write your Social Security number on your tax payment checks even though the instructions tell you to
  • Monitor your credit bureau activity
  • Secure and protect your passwords
  • Shred papers with your Social Security Numbers and any credit card or bank account numbers
  • Review your SSA earnings statement and credit agency reports at least once a year
  • Ignore email and phone requests for account information
  • Do not check account information on computers that are not yours or if you are using your computer or smartphone in a location where the information can be hacked or stolen
  • Reduce your use of credit cards for small transactions and forgo the inconsequential mileage points

This is a war – not with bullets and bombs, but nevertheless a war.  Fight back by being diligent, alert and responsive to questionable or illogical activities and requests.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Donna permalink
    February 23, 2016 7:53 pm

    Question for you, Ed. If there are about 14,000 people every year that the SSA accidently deceased, does that mean that there could be up to 14,000 (dead) people still collecting a monthly social security check?

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