Feds Charge California Woman With Stealing IDs From the Dead

Federal prosecutors this week charged a Southern California woman with aggravated identity theft and other crimes for allegedly using a popular genealogy research website to locate people who had recently died, and then taking over their credit cards.

Tracy June Kirkland, 42, allegedly used Rootsweb.com to find the names, Social Security numbers and birth dates of people who, shall we say, had no further need for their consumer credit lines. She then “would randomly call various credit card companies to determine if the deceased individual had an … account,” according to the 15-count indictment (.pdf) filed in federal court in Los Angeles Tuesday.

She’d then persuade the issuer to change the mailing address for the dead victim to one of her many rented mail drops in Orange and Riverside counties, and in some cases she’d add her own name as an authorized user of the card, prosecutors say. The lenders included Nordstrom Federal Savings Bank, Macy’s and GE Money Bank.

At least 100 of the dearly departed were allegedly used in the scheme, which prosecutors say began in October 2005 and continued until last month. The indictment charges that Kirkland obtained various unspecified goods and cash advances.

Rootsweb, run by Provo, Utah-based The Generations Network, is a genealogical research site offering a wealth of resources. One of them is free, up-to-date access to the Social Security Administration’s Death Index, a list of people who have died, along with their birth dates and Social Security numbers.

Ironically, the government produces the monthly Death Index so that banks and other lenders can prevent people from applying for credit using a dead person’s information — the index is made public by the Department of Commerce under the Freedom of Information Act. The caper Kirkland’s accused of mastering apparently exploits a loophole, by taking over accounts that are already open.

Dorothy Clark, spokeswoman for the Social Security Administration, says she’s not aware of any prior cases of the index being used to perpetrate fraud, instead of prevent it. “None that I can attest to,” she says. “Nothing that I can say concrete.”

Rootsweb spokesman Mike Ward says the company hears rumors or speculation once or twice a year about people using the Death Index for identity theft, but that this is the first prosecution he’s aware of.

“The reason the Social Security Administration has it out there is to prevent fraud, and when it’s used to perpetrate fraud it’s because not all the checks and balances were in place on the financial institution’s end,” says Ward.

“Genealogists use it was one of many tools, like the census records or birth and death records, to fill in their family tree,” Ward adds.

Kirkland is also charged with unauthorized access to a computer, for allegedly hacking into Gallagher Bassett Services, and using the claims management company’s Citicorp bank account number to plunder $47,500 in cash.

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