Criminals go to the grave for identity theft targets

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The Independent Online

A crime wave that amounts to modern grave-robbing is sweeping the country, with fraudsters in rising numbers stealing the identities of dead people to take out loans and acquire credit cards.

A crime wave that amounts to modern grave-robbing is sweeping the country, with fraudsters in rising numbers stealing the identities of dead people to take out loans and acquire credit cards.

More than 30 years since the author Frederick Forsyth revealed the criminal possibilities of assuming the identity of the dead with his ice-cool assassin in The Day of the Jackal, the number of cases of identity fraud involving someone who has died is soaring. Latest figures show that nearly 200 people a day become the victim of what is among the fastest growing crimes in Britain.

Previous estimates of the problem showed there had been about 51,000 cases in the past four years. But Cifas - The UK's Fraud Prevention Service - now believes there have been more than 180,000 cases since 1999, and the number of incidents is growing at 60 per cent a year. More than 70,000 people in Britain are expected to have suffered from the effects of this type of crime in 2004.

Although Forsyth's killer took on the identity of a dead child born decades before to cover his tracks, criminals today are using identity theft for less violent, but highly profitable means. They are making the most of the growth of internet and telephone banking to apply for loans and credit cards, or to buy goods online.

It is thought criminals have got away with more than £300m from impersonating the dead. Last month, a fraudster was convicted in London for creating a fake identity to fund a lavish lifestyle. Ede Osifo, an illegal immigrant from Nigeria, obtained the birth certificate of a child who died aged four in the 1960s to get a national insurance number and a driving licence.

With these documents, he then gained thousands of pounds from loans and credit cards. He was caught when applying for a British passport.

Peter Hurst of Cifas said: "Criminals will scour newspapers for notices of funerals, as well as house clearances and auctions following a death. From small pieces of information, they can find out where the deceased lived, and will then visit their homes, going through their rubbish to get more details about their lives."

Bank statements, credit card receipts, council-tax requests, television licences and utility bills all contain information that can be used by others to pass themselves off as the deceased. Relatives are unaware of the theft until bailiffs appear wanting payment for goods or loans taken out in their loved one's name.

Fraudsters find out from estate agents that a house is for sale because the owner has died and they have been known to organise viewings of empty properties. There they will steal mail or other documents left around to gather details that will help them use their identity.

"Criminals are having to move away from the traditional theft of stealing a credit card and using it, thanks to the increasing need to know PIN numbers," Mr Hurst said. "But credit cards and loans can now be taken out over the phone and the internet, which can be remarkably easy if you have got hold of the right information." Relatives often take the belongings of the deceased to charity shops, and fraudsters will search clothes and bags for old letters or information left behind from previous owners.

At present, the official death register is not passed from the Government to companies in the private sector, so it is up to individuals to notify all parties after the death of their relative.

"Many people in the wake of a bereavement will forget to inform all the companies and organisations that their loved one had connections with," Mr Hurst said. That allows criminals to get away with thousands of pounds. He also warns people to take care not to include too many details, such as the date of birth, of the deceased in announcements about the funeral, and to shred all documents when clearing houses.

The Government is reviewing whether to pass on official data about deaths to financial companies, which would stamp out fraud of this kind.

CONMAN RAN UP HUGE OVERDRAFT

Diane Frost was still grieving over her 92-year-old father when she discovered someone was keeping his identity alive to steal money.

After he died, Mrs Frost, 64, had had all his post redirected to her home. Then the Royal Mail asked her to confirm she wanted the post redirected to another address. It agreed not to do so.

Months later a bank letter to her father arrived, showing that someone had run up a huge overdraft in his name.

"I was horrified," says Mrs Frost, who informed the police. "I was worried these debts would become part of his estate."

They did not, but Mrs Frost never found out if the fraudster was caught - or how they got hold of her father's details.