Wednesday, June 24, 2009

How Easy Is It To Steal a Dead Man's Identity?

Is Zack Overkill's plan of identity theft here far fetched? At first, I thought so. But as it turns out, under the circumstances Zack might just get away with it (presuming he actually follows through and is not just idly thinking).

A bit of back story first for those not familiar with Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' Incognito. Zack Overkill is under quite a bit of pressure these days. A former supervillain (and one of the most ruthless), Zack made the decision to rat out his former boss, the Black Death (a villain even more notoriously ruthless than he). In order to protect himself, he enrolled in witness protection and now serves as an ordinary file clerk while attempting to suppress his inner desires to, well, villainize.

Unfortunately for him, Zack got careless and began spending his nights running around town, stopping burglaries and robberies, in order to escape from his monotonous daily life. When word got out of his nighttime antics, two supervillains were dispatched in order to bring him in. In the process, Zack's only "friend" from the office, Farmer, was killed.

Now Zack needs an escape route. Feeling he has been discovered and facing pressure from both sides (the law enforcement officials who put him there and his former gang led by the Black Death), he considers his options for escaping witness protection (and his likely death). Finding Farmer's credit card, he considers crafting himself a fake I.D. and escaping using his former friend's identity.

Would Zack actually be able to pull this off? Possibly.

Identity theft, as many of us know, is a major problem. 8.3 million Americans claimed they were the victims of some form of identity theft in 2005. And it's bad enough when criminals steal the identity of living people. But there is also a form, known as Ghosting, in which criminals assume the identity of a dead person. It is the rarest form of identity theft, particularly because it is quite difficult to accomplish successfully.

Ghosting is particularly difficult in the modern, technological age. This is due in no small part to the advent of computerized records, search engines, and quick spread of information between agencies, especially compared with the 1970s and 1980s, when the United States filed birth certificates and death certificates separately. Furthermore, DNA imaging and fingerprinting technology has made catching Ghosters a much less harrowing and lengthy process as it was when fingerprints were not all stored in an electronic database and DNA testing was less sophisticated.

Nevertheless, there are criminals who frequently scan obituaries for names and addresses of recently deceased, and then are able to purchase their personal information off of the internet. For example, the Social Security Administration has a Master Death Index which allows users to enter some basic information about a deceased individual (name, birthdate, etc.) and receive his or her social security number. They might also just steal some documents from the person's mailbox, which might include credit card numbers, etc.

If we look at Zack Overkill's situation, we see that it is not completely infeasible for him to assume Farmer's identity to escape his pursuers and the Witness Protection Program. First of all, it just so happens that Farmer was about the same age as he was. Identity theft is significantly easier to accomplish when the victim is the same age as the criminal, otherwise it would arouse suspicion. If Farmer was 70, for instance, Zack might be pulled into an interrogation office upon trying to flee the country with Farmer's birth certificate.

Moreover, Farmer was a loner who, it seems, did not have many close friends or family members and lived a fairly boorish lifestyle. Although his death was fairly public (police and hospital rushed to the scene of his death, so there must be at least a hospital record of his death and autopsy) and well-known by those who had seem him the most (there was an office party held in his memory in the latest issue), this does not necessarily imply that news of his death had spread to all the appropriate agencies. In fact, many successful Ghosting attempts occur because family members of the deceased often neglect to call the Social Security Administration and the credit card companies to inform them of the death. For example, in 2007 MSNBC reported this story about a man whose identity was stolen and sold merely two weeks after his death, in part because the family had not notified the proper agencies. And this is not unreasonable. Usually, when someone dies, families spend time grieving, rather than worrying about administrative tasks. Unfortunately, this makes it easier for the Ghoster.

Therefore, since it was unlikely that Farmer's relatives or friends took the time to notify the credit bureaus, it is entirely possible that they might not yet be aware of his death. Hence, Zack Overkill would be in a prime position to steal his identity.

And hey, there's got to be a reason they call him "Overkill."

39 comments:

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It's not as hard as you think to steal one.

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