Video: Stealing the dead's credit

By Don Teague Correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/7/2004 6:41:18 PM ET 2004-01-07T23:41:18

Authorities call the identity theft scam both widespread and disturbing.  Most of the victims, like Billie Crane's brother, had two things in common — they had good credit and were recently deceased.

“These people should get the death penalty,” Crane said. “They've stolen my brother's identity.”

Allegedly at the center of the scam is Kwezeta Butler, who investigators say would scan newspaper obituaries and then pay an Internet search company to do background checks on the dead.

Authorities say Butler obtained Social Security numbers and credit information on 80 people  from at least five states.

While using the dead to co-sign car loans may be a unique twist, stealing the identities of the deceased is nothing new and privacy experts say the Internet makes it easier than ever.

"The reason these scam artists do it is, they don't think people will be checking their deceased loved ones' credit history," said John Bankhead of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

80 people in five states
Authorities say Butler obtained Social Security numbers and credit information on 80 people in at least five states — Georgia, California, Oklahoma, Virginia and Ohio.

She then sold the information by word of mouth for up to $600 per name to people with bad credit, who then listed the victims as co-signers on 100 car loans at a suburban Atlanta car dealership. The car loans totaled about $1.5 million.

Linda Foley, director of the Identity Theft Resource Center, said the nation's death registry needs to be updated -- and expanded to make sure credit bureaus and government agencies don't issue benefits to the deceased.

"The Georgia case proves how easy it is to go on the Internet and get information to use illegally," Foley said. "In this case it was to buy cars. It could have been used for terrorism."

Authorities caught on to the Georgia scam only when Billie Crane discovered her brother had apparently applied for a credit card after his death. Crane told her son, who happens to be a sheriff's deputy.  He began an investigation that eventually led to arrest warrants being issued for 80 people.  Investigators say more could follow.

Kwezeta Butler and more than 50 of the people she allegedly sold information to have been arrested on felony forgery charges.

Crane said there's no way they can repay what they owe her brother and other victims: Their identities.

"You feel like they're grave robbers.... They stoop to do these things."

Still, Ed Mierzwinski with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group said theft victims and their loved ones aren't the only ones affected by such scams.

"When banks are victimized by identity thieves they charge the rest of the consumers more for credit.  Consumers pay more for credit when banks issue credit to identity thieves. Sloppy bank practices result in consumers’ paying more for credit. When they issue credit to identity thieves, consumers pay."

What can you do to protect yourself from Internet identity thieves?  Rule number one, says Mierzwinski, keep your Social Security number private. "All an identity thief needs is a Social Security number. Iit's easy to get one," he said.

Identity thieves get Social Security numbers off the Internet, off college ID cards, off military IDs — and consumers pay the price, Mierzwinski said.

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