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ID thieves cash in on death of Lake Forest 5-year-old

November 9, 2011 2:06PM

Benny Watters of Lake Forest, who fought a brain stem tumor for over two years, died in September 2010.


Updated: November 10, 2011 3:45AM

Identity thieves are cashing in on dead children across the nation and upsetting grieving families — including the Watters family of Lake Forest.

These thieves are stealing Social Security numbers to collect fraudulent tax refunds from the Internal Revenue Service, according to a Scripps Howard News Service report and Sun-Times Media research. The Watters family — who lost 5-year-old Benny last September — say their anguish is amplified by the realization that the crooks get help from an unexpected source: the Social Security Administration’s “Death Master File,” which records and lists information about everyone who dies in the United States. Armed with the deceased child’s Social Security number and other personal information, crooks falsely claim them as dependents and have the refunds routed to them.

The DMF list, created in 1980 to help financial institutions fight fraud, has also been posted — and updated weekly — online for years by popular genealogy sites. The file contains the names, birthdates and Social Security numbers of more than 90 million deceased Americans.

“I can’t understand why it’s necessary to display a whole Social Security number,” said Lisa Watters.

Benny Watters, who fought a brain stem tumor for more than two years, died in September 2010. When his family filed a tax return this past August, it was rejected, apparently because someone else had stolen the boy’s identity and already had claimed him as a dependent.

Lisa Watters blames the genealogy websites — Benny’s number is available on FamilySearch.org.

“It just seems like such a simple fix,” she said.

The Watters have re-filed by mail and are awaiting a refund.

Benny Watters deeply loved Lake Forest College football, sports, Wii games, laughter and spending time with those he loved. Benny was diagnosed with an inoperable brain stem tumor, specifically Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), at the age of 2. Shortly after, his family created Benny’s World (www.bennysworld.org), a non-profit foundation to fund research to find a cure for DIPG. Of the 3,410 children under age 20 in the U.S. who are diagnosed every year with a brain tumor, only 250 of those are DIPG. The median overall survival rate for DIPG is nine months.

“It’s one of the most devastating tumors you could get,” Lisa Watters told the Lake Forester last year.

Identity theft has elevated the Watters’ pain. Although there is no national tally of the purloined use of dead children’s identities, the Scripps Howard News Service had identified 28 families — from California to Georgia — who say thieves sought to profit off their dead children by claiming them as dependents in recent years.

The threat has mushroomed in the last five years, said Pat Loder, executive director of the Compassionate Friends USA, a nonprofit organization based in Oak Brook that serves grieving parents.

Because the IRS will not provide ID theft victims with details about the fraudulent filers — the crooks also have a right to privacy, the agency says — victims say they have no idea who claimed their children or how.

“The IRS won’t give you any information on who did it,” Lisa Watters said.

Scripps Howard News Service with Chicago Sun-Times staff

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